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How to motivate managers and staff in times of great adversity

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A quick straw poll of most organisations would indicate that they experience ‘times of great adversity’ most of the time, or certainly believe they do.

Kim Coe, CEO of the The How2 Group, looks at how to deal with organisational ‘states’ that go beyond the normal experience of struggle, hardship, fear and frustration, which sad to say is the common context for many people in business nowadays.


This article is about the times where something has happened ‘left field’ to strike a severe blow on top of the existing challenges and constraints, such as changes in legislation, sudden losses or negative press publicity, and it’s about those times where it has been too long since people have experienced enough ‘wins’ and where the underlying, collective belief has simply swung from “I CAN” to “I CAN’T” and it all looks likely to get worse.

This article addresses the principle of Leadership and how it is the only factor that can motivate and turn around a company culture once the fear of taking risks and being damaged by being innovative has overwhelmingly taken hold.


Motivation and morale

It is obvious that a link between motivation and morale exists and that when one is poor, the other is directly affected.

However, managers often think this means the issue of motivation is the thing to address and that means people aren’t getting either enough pay or enough promotion accordingly, whereas countless examples exist to disprove that.

For example, a company may have hit very hard times but the staff all rally around and come out stronger than ever, whereas a relatively strong company may have a series of negative press articles and it quite simply ‘wipes out’ the sense of self respect, power and capability at the heart of the organisation.

So, morale seems to be something that can overcome set backs in motivation and can even act as a motivating factor in truly dark times but it does not work so well in reverse.

The reason is because ‘morale’ is a state, and ‘motivation’ is an influencer, making one ‘cause’ and the other ‘effect’. So, when the ‘times of great adversity’ come along, they are simply adding to what was already being caused at a fundamental level within the organisation and which remained more or less buried until something stimulates it to erupt.

When this happens, the first thing you should do is to stop trying to motivate people and start getting to grips with the issues of low morale.


Problems relating to low morale

Most consultants know that when they can go into just about any organisation to see what problems it has to deal with, one that will always be on the checklist is ‘morale’.

Senior managers know that their business is only as good as the underlying energy or ‘juice’ their people have available in doing the job, so when ‘times of great adversity’ hit, there is the sense of already running on empty or thereabouts.

Symptoms arising from low morale will be relating to any or all of the following:

- Missed performance goals

- Poor time management & organisational chaos (non prioritisation)

- Insufficient resources (human & operational)

- Low level of creativity and decision-making

- Scarcity around innovative, entrepreneurial thinking

- Culture of blame & distrust

- Management by fear or by isolation (being unavailable)

- Over-emphasis on financial restraints and budget controls

- Uncertainty as to who is truly leading the organisation

- Absenteeism, gossiping & disloyal behaviour

- Absence of teamwork and sense of individual support

- Fragmented management culture with unaligned objectives

- Pre-occupation with ‘who tells whom to do what’

- Unrealised talent and intellectual capital across the whole entity

... and any others you can think of, now that you come to think of it...


Raising morale

The term ‘morale’ was made common during times of war, when people would describe the ‘low morale of the troops’, as the sense of futility, exhaustion and paralysis that sets in when you get shot at, day in and day out without much sense of why or what it is all for.

Business has adopted the phrase and given it a sense of ‘apathy & defeat’, which is not really accurate. Just how apathetic are you going to feel when bullets are flying about?

Accordingly, we have lost some sight of what it takes to truly raise morale and have resorted to acts of threat, bribery and coercion without realising it; or we say it’s the H.R. department’s job… and if all that fails, we’ll try to “jack them up and glaze them over” in order to keep going.

The problem is that senior managers have to step outside of their take on reality and even what they think others’ take on reality should be. That is if they are to connect with this fundamental and profoundly honest expression of their organisation, no matter how unpleasant or ‘wrong’ they feel that reality is or how much it fails to match their expectations.

Keeping to the war analogy, how many incidents have there been when a smaller fighting force has withstood and overcome a mighty army and how often has that been down to great leadership?

Perhaps the famous “Once more into the breach dear friends” speech means that Shakespeare has as much to teach us as the latest ‘excellence in leadership’ books that line the bookshelves, that is when it comes to true leadership, motivation and morale, to say nothing of actually winning.

The most telling element of the statements above is in the phrase “when you get shot at day in and day out without much sense of why or what it is all for”.

How can people know what the point is or what their contribution is and should strive to be, without being led, guided, facilitated and even made to express what they are capable of?

Acting as a leader, in this atmosphere of engagement, when the war propaganda (negative press) and even casualties (cuts & redundancies) take place, there is only a strengthening of the corporate body and spirit as a result.

Without a strong enough context however, generals will retreat to their war rooms and leave the troops dazed and confused on the battlefield, trying to stave off whatever seems somehow inevitable on less and less rations and with less and less hope.

Small wonder these troops think about surrender or defection more often than their natural disposition would normally allow.

And all it takes is for their generals to walk amongst them, be unified in their intent and resolved in their determination to win; for a literal explosion of strength, energy and release of optimism to come about.


Business is war

This has been said many times and probably best by the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu and his writing, ‘The Art of War’.

It is true and it takes little imagination to see the links between a physical enemy and the enemy of inertia, failure or oppressive forces that have brought great businesses to their knees many times in recent history.

The same fears of personal survival, loss of power, dignity and achievement haunt most organisations and only strong, communicative leadership can overcome these threats and even then, it is consistency that matters above all else.

Having a ‘wander around’ the troops every now and then and catching them out doing something wrong or right, trying to lift the spirits with impromptu, occasional motivational speeches, will not work.

If a troop has been badly hurt in a number of skirmishes, you need to attend to priorities first and get beyond the threat of a wounded company before you can get them singing patriotic songs (or reading the mission statement in reception out loud with any real enthusiasm).


First and foremost is to create ORDER

At least 70% of the problem with low morale is usually caused by inadequately-focused people doing irrelevant things for too long without knowing it, that is until the ‘sky falls’.

In this case, great leadership is about guidance with consistent use of simple and effective management controls.

If you look at a low morale, unmotivated group and ask them what they achieved at the end of any one day, they will have trouble telling you, over and above ‘we managed to keep going at any rate’.

When adversarial circumstances hit, what little order and control is in place tends to go out the window and the new event becomes the cause of all problems under the sun, even if it was obvious that things weren’t great to start with.

A true leader will turn their back on these irrelevancies and concentrate on facilitating their people to win in small, incremental ways that build back the strength and success through matters as simple as clear goaling, briefing, prioritisation, de-briefing and time management.


Second is to create PERSONAL VALUE

You cannot even contemplate this step unless the first has been taken care of.

If people had a sense that they mattered, not because they are ‘special’ but because they can have a direct impact on the future success and absolute well being of the organisation and their team, they will ‘draw on’ a personal reservoir of energy, optimism and strength that no manager in the world could seduce from them without the individual’s choice.

It is a paradox that says ‘when you think of others and determine to fight for the whole’ your own self respect and morale is raised in ways that no amount of glamorous wins, awards or salary increases could ever achieve.

A true leader will understand this and will ensure that they communicate congruently with this position. They will never become dependant on their people but neither will they subtly take credit for everything that happens or overlook the hundreds of small acts of ‘heroism’ that take place daily, in their pre-occupation with their own importance and life threatening issues as ‘the General’.


Thirdly is to create ABUNDANCE

Business is mostly a matter of ‘agreement’ in that wherever the largest ‘vote’ or collection of beliefs sits, there is an unarguable statement of reality.

Scientists say we think up to 50,000 thoughts a day, which would be great if these were mostly life-enhancing, change-making significant thoughts … but no, they are mostly negative, petty, obsessive and even banal thoughts on the whole … and the worst of it is these tend to drive our overall perceptions of life and matters generally and we ‘trade’ these with each other every single day, if not in words then in our facial expressions, tone of voice and body language.

So, when adversarial times hit, it takes very little to give the negative ‘ground of being’ a nice healthy dose of validation. Why is it that people are more likely to be influenced by what they read in the newspaper than to look into themselves and find out what their own real and direct personal experience is? Because, we are conditioned to survive by agreeing with the notion that ‘scarcity’ is the order of the day (how full of scarcity and negativity is the average newspaper?) and anyone who goes against that runs the risk of being naïve, out of touch, blind and stupid.

A leader must embody ‘abundance’ and to check their communication portrays that position in even the most stuck areas;

When it comes to finding enough resources to match expectations for the job, this is not one tenth as immovable a problem as it first seems by first taking up the position that says ‘there is more than enough of anything to have everyone satisfied and all we have to do is help make that a reality’.

Obviously, you need to have ensured that the above two points have been addressed first, or all you will do is confirm the disorganisation and low personal value; resulting in less and less people able to do more and more of the growing demand.

A true leader turns their back on ‘outside negativities’ and knows that current circumstances were created some time ago. And even if that was just last week, they know it has no hold or restraint over the possibilities that exist here and now.

A great leader will convey this confidence and stimulate a level of response that says ‘it can be done’ and a culture that will laugh at the criticisms and attacks of others because they know what is going on and they know what their experience tells them.

In conclusion, as every single aspect of advice held in this Byte is based on the responsiveness of management and their willingness to embrace leadership, you may feel somewhat frustrated at the lack of any ‘quick fix’ solutions held here.

If so, it may indicate that your management, especially senior management, are in need of some attention themselves and need encouraging to ‘turn their back’ on what is irrelevant, focus on simple organisational health and start to embody leadership through their communication and inter-personal skills, no matter how unused or rusty these may be.

If you are a manager, senior manager or leader of the organisation, all you need to know is that ‘times of great adversarial difficulties’ will never be a greater threat than that brought about by your refusal to take charge appropriately and in response to them.

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