From Harvard Business Online: Kevin P. Coyne on the difference between morale and employees being happy, and how leaders can inspire no matter what
Posted on Conversation Starter: December 4, 2007 8:31 AM
Many managers will soon face the challenge of retaining and motivating their best people in the midst of layoffs and downsizing. For them, this will be the leadership challenge of the next year.
Fortunately, good morale does not require people to be happy. The definition of good morale is that people's emotions contribute to, rather than subtract from, the unit achieving its goals. Many of the best examples of high morale come from situations of great unhappiness and stress—such as heroic actions in war, etc. Thus, while it may be impossible to make people feel happy while their friends are being let go, that is not your job. Your job is to build your team's focus and dedication.
This will happen when you help them see that four things still hold true:
1) Their unit's work still contributes to making others' lives better. People perform when they believe that they are part of something they can be proud of. That idea probably played a role in them joining your particular company to begin with.
With the company laying off people, that belief may have been damaged. You cannot fix their views of the company as a whole. But do not wait for the CEO to solve that problem. Shift the focus to something that you can control—the good that their unit does. You can help them see how that still contributes to people's lives. How is the product their particular unit produces still important? When the bank branches they manage opens a new checking account for someone, doesn't it still help that person better run his finances?
2) Their own ideas matter more now. In bad times, managers must feel that their personal ideas contribute right now to improving the unit for the future. This is the time to take time to listen, and act on their suggestions. If there are layoffs, then there is work to redistribute, and processes to change. That provides increased, not decreased opportunities for them to have positive impact. Listen, and give them positive credit, for solving the problems.
3) The misery will be temporary. Most companies who downsize are not in financial peril—they simply want to contain a forecasted drop in profits. Therefore, for most companies, this episode represents a one time cut back. If at all possible, find out when the period of downsizing will end, and communicate that to your team. Morale always stays higher when people know an end date.
4) Tomorrow will be brighter. For most companies, there is a brighter future beyond the current layoffs. Help people see this for the company, the unit, and them personally. I recently read about a company that was thinning its executive ranks across all levels by 50 percent. The Human Resource officer worried about motivating managers afterwards. He shouldn't. After the misery of the initial layoffs, every manager's responsibility would be twice the size as before. Bright people like the idea of more responsibility earlier. And, as long as the turnover rate remains the same afterwards as before, the probability of any one manager getting a promotion each year will be the same as before (because there will be half as many openings, but only half as many candidates). Good morale should return.