News & Insight
April 2009

How to Motivate People in Tough Times

Sandra Naiman

Managing employees during tough economic times poses a unique set of challenges. People are distressed and distracted by news of poor earnings reports, bankruptcies, and layoffs. Anxieties sky rocket in response to media stories that begin with "not since the great depression," and go on to report a continued rise in unemployment, increased foreclosures and tent cities springing up everywhere.

They key to motivating people during such times is to help them focus on something that makes them feel useful and productive. This is a process that requires constant attention and deliberate actions. The first step is to assure employees that leadership is competent to navigate in turbulent waters. Next, turn their attention to positive, creative and meaningful activities.

Demonstrate Confidence

When you telegraph the confidence and ability to guide the company through unstable times, the workforce will trust you to do just that. You are being closely watched and employees will take their cues from your behavior. If you convey a sense of confidence and calm, the workforce will respond in kind. Demonstrate by words and actions that you can effectively deal with the issues and challenges that derive from these tough economic times.


In the face of uncertainty people crave information, and in its absence they will fabricate it. It is critical to frequently and truthfully communicate with the workforce. And the communication must be both ways. People must feel their voices are heard and their concerns honored. Further, to manage effectively you must be aware of what is really going on with your employees.

Be Out There

Make sure that you are highly visible, available and approachable. Really listen and respond, even if you don't have all the answers and can't solve every problem. Whenever possible, go the extra mile to show support for your people. Pitch in to help meet a critical deadline. Provide professional development opportunities through new assignments, increased responsibilities or special training.

Create a Sense of Purpose

At a time when people feel that much of their financial circumstances are our of their control, they respond well to having a sense of authority and autonomy at work. Indeed, they welcome the distraction and the opportunity to influence a valuable and valued outcome. Allow as much latitude as possible for people to determine how to go about their jobs and make decisions in the course of doing it.

Set group as well as individual goals. When people feel connected to others around a common purpose, they are better able to focus, create and produce. Lead by example and create an atmosphere of team work and collaboration. Anything that reminds people that they are part of a group and gives them a sense of identity with others is a powerful tool in bringing out their best efforts.


Establish clear priorities and focus on short range objectives that can be achieved, publicized and rewarded. There is nothing like winning to motivate, and a "win" can be anything people say it is. Set small goals on the way to larger ones and acknowledge each step along the way.

Sometimes a simple pat-on-the-back is enough and other times something more tangible is in order. A celebration need not be costly or extravagant. The idea is to let people know they are making progress toward a goal and that their achievements are noticed and appreciated.

Make Fun

Do what you can to help people have fun while they are at work. Set an example by your own mood. Project a positive attitude and greet people enthusiastically. Engage in a little small talk. Touch base with your direct reports and the end of the day and thank them for their good work.

Plan different events the course of the work week. Have a theme party the last hour of the day on a Friday or sponsor office contests. Encourage people to be as playful as the company culture will allow.

Leverage Tough Times

Although people certainly prefer to experience good times over bad, there is satisfaction to be derived from rising to the occasion. Leverage this to rally the troops and recognize them for their tenacity and commitment. People will respond because they really want to experience a sense of pride, contribution and satisfaction in their work lives, no matter what is going on around them.

WJM Faculty Member Sandra Naiman is an organizational development consultant and executive coach with over 20 years experience inspiring excellence in teams and individuals. Her areas of expertise include: professional development, succession planning, targeted selection, employee retention, mentoring and coaching, team effectiveness and change management. She is the author of The High Achiever's Secret Codebook: The Unwritten Rules for Success at Work (JIST, 2009).

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