Ra-ra cheers don't work. Neither do wildly aggressive goals. What does?
Now that the holidays are over and most everyone has returned to work, nothing fundamental has changed. The economy still looks depressing, stress levels are running high, and it's still winter, with no major holidays or festivals to look forward to for quite some time. Maintaining morale is a priority–but how do you do that?
Most leaders fall back on exhortation: You're great, we're great, we can do it. Many also resort to the bane of strategic thinking, the big hairy audacious goal, attempting to excite the workforce with random ambition targets. I don't think either of these works. Even the most expert rhetorician will find that wildly-enthusiastic, positive speeches grow stale with overuse, while extravagant goals usually have an effect exactly opposite to the one intended when failure to achieve them proves demoralizing. So what should you do instead?
Keep it simple.
1. Be honest. Don't try to deny the perils that surround the business, be they in the economy, the competition, or just the sheer difficulty of what you do. I once sat on the board of a company with leaders who imagined that, by not articulating the difficulties they faced, they would somehow protect their workforce from fear. In fact, everyone in the company saw the dangers and deduced that the leadership must be blind, incompetent, and out of touch. The best people left. Articulating your challenges doesn't mean being paralyzed by them and it's critical that everyone shares a common sense of what you're up against.
2. Affirm (or re-affirm) your purpose. Why are you in business? What is the practical and real good that your business achieves? Don't be too highfalutin about this: Not every company can save the world. So be clear and real about the benefits that your work bestows on your customers and your community. Everyone needs a reason–beyond the paycheck–to come to work in the morning.
3. Have a plan. Great leaders excel at identifying the right goals. Too easy and they're meaningless; celebrating birthdays, while sociable, won't build morale–but celebrating your 100th customer might. If the goals are too much of a stretch, failure to achieve them just brings hopelessness. So find and focus on benchmarks that mark real progress in the right direction.
4. Make it personal. When someone in the company achieves a remarkable result, celebrate that. This can be tricky–you want to institutionalize learning, not foster internal competition. But everyone needs to see–quickly–that success is possible, personal, and real.
5. Over-communicate. Brown bag lunches, informal updates, regular team or company meetings all count. In the absence of information, gossip, mis-information, and fear will proliferate. If your financial position is parlous, if layoffs loom, it's critical to keep telling your team how things stand. In the last recession, when the Eliassen Group, an IT recruitment firm, confronted this danger, it gave employees reliable information they needed to make their own decisions and not be blind-sided. That in itself kept their confidence intact.
6. Don't make false promises. No one knows when the economy will recover or what it will look like when it does. Don't watch CNBC: Salvation doesn't lie there. Don't waste time on speculation and don't imagine that you need to know. Keep yourself and everyone around you focused on what you can control or at least influence.
7. Go home. We've been in a state of financial crisis for nearly five years now. Everyone is tired. Many have partners or friends who are afraid, have been laid off, or are unemployed. All of this adds up to a great deal of stress which usually equates to bad diet and lack of sleep. You need the people around you to be physically and mentally fit–so let them go home, go to the gym, and look after the people they love.