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How to Overcome the Workplace Blues

It’s mid-decade and many managers must lead a demoralized, post-downsizing, do-more-with-less workforce. How’s your team doing? Are your people disillusioned, disengaged, distrustful, or dissatisfied?

It’s mid-decade and many managers must lead a demoralized, post-downsizing, do-more-with-less workforce. How’s your team doing? Are your people disillusioned, disengaged, distrustful, or dissatisfied?

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If so, you’re not alone. Recent research showed that 70% of American workers are either not engaged or are actively disengaged (undermining their engaged coworkers’ efforts). That less-than-thrilled feeling is costing the American economy up to $350 billion per year in lost productivity. Similar research in the UK found that four out of five employees are not engaged, costing the UK $79 billion a year. Eight out of 10 workers are expected to jump ship when the economy’s lights come back on. They’re spending time updating their resumes and logging onto Monster.com.

Here’s what one manager asked us recently:

I can’t say I was surprised when I read the results of our recent satisfaction surveys. Our employees are more demoralized and disengaged than ever. It’s no wonder, after four years of downsizing and belt-tightening. Many have been doing the job of two or three workers — and without any additional compensation. I’m afraid that as the options outside open up again, we’ll lose some great talent. I’m worried that those losses will affect my department. Can I do anything to light the fire in them again?

Yes, you can. And you can keep them. There is an art and a science to hanging onto and engaging “survivors” of downsizing, right-sizing, mergers and acquisitions, or business downturns. Many of you learned that in the early and mid-1990s when you faced a similar task.

First, recognize how much power and influence you have, as a manager, over engaging your talented people. Research studies tell us that 50% of work satisfaction is determined by the relationship workers have with their bosses. They look to you for leadership. They look to you to mentor and to care about them. And on the heels of big changes and tough times employees look to you for support, communication and structure. Here is what we mean.

Support

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  • Open your door. For months now, you may have been less available than before. You’ve had more meetings and fewer answers and the result is a closed door. Your employees want (and deserve) access to you.
  • Allow grieving. For many, everything has changed. Coworkers have been laid off, new leadership arrived, and the sign on the door is new. Additionally, many have been working harder than ever before as they make up for the friends that left. Your employees (like you) deserve to whine a bit and to experience the normal feelings of loss.
  • Actively listen. How are your listening skills? Now is the time to sharpen them. Allow your treasured talent to vent, complain about their exhaustion, tell you what they need and want. If they don’t bring it up, ask how they’re doing and what they need.
  • Do something. Get them resources. They’ve done so much with so little for so long. They will love you for getting them the new laptop or hiring a temporary worker to help out on the latest project.
  • Celebrate small successes. How long has it been since you’ve sprung for pizza for your team — just to say thanks for work well done? Do it.

Communication

  • Communicate often and honestly. Yes, you need to do that all the time. But it’s especially important during and following tough times, when employees are down and disheartened. As soon as you have the O.K. to share information — do it.
  • Create new communication channels. The best approach is still face-to-face. And it’s so rare these days that it packs an even more powerful punch. If you don’t typically use videos or “all-hands” meetings, they could be a novel and effective approach.
  • Communicate vision and direction. This is tough, but it is so important. First decipher what the vision and direction are. If you can’t communicate that for the entire organization, do it for your division, department or team.
  • Seek input from your employees. They have good ideas. Don’t you need those? And remember how valued you feel when someone asks what you think and then listens to your ideas?

Structure

  • Provide clear direction. This means going beyond the communicated vision to provide a detailed road map. Even independent, autonomous employees want to know what you expect from them and how you want them to proceed, day to day.
  • Create “winter rules.” In golf, when conditions are not normal, people play by winter rules. They get to tee up the ball in a new place or toss it out of a puddle and into the fairway, all to gain advantage and improve results. Do the same with your team, creating temporary policies, procedures or reporting relationships to get you through uncertain or tough times.
  • Model new behaviors. If you want an upbeat, focused, positive team, you’ll need to act upbeat, focused, and positive. They watch you. They listen to you. When you radiate doom and gloom, they’re affected. And when you’re excited or optimistic about the team, the organization or the future, they catch that optimism. Tell them what you know about the future and be honest about what you don’t.

Research shows that engaged employees are more likely to stay with you, produce more and increase your customers’ satisfaction. All of that makes your job easier and improves the bottom line. Offer up an additional dose of support, communication and structure. You can light the fire again.

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