Colleagues at an office meeting
Colleagues at an office meeting
Colleagues at an office meeting

By Caroline Ceniza-Levine

In a recent post, I wrote about how to motivate yourself and get back to work when you resist it (say, after a holiday break!). But what if you’re the manager in charge of getting your team back on track? I’ve seen workplaces in fast-growth mode where burnout is a real danger. On the flip side, I’ve seen workplaces in the midst of a slowdown or a restructuring where anxiety eats away at morale. As a manager, you can profoundly affect the work environment for your team. Here are five tips for how to motivate your team when morale is low:

Focus on the team and the individual.

With hyper-growth or a negative market condition where most everyone is impacted, your efforts as the manager should be directed among your team. Ensure that you’re keeping everyone apprised of news and changes, so that you control the story and your team isn’t left to its imagination. Negativity is contagious and left unchecked, one worrier or complainer can bring down the morale of the group. That said, don’t assume that everyone on your team feels the same way. One person may be anxious about losing his job. Another might feel like she stepped up and deserves a promotion. Still another might be frustrated that he doesn’t have the tools to handle the current changes. You need to manage both the overall temperature of the group but also uncover and understand individual concerns.

Coach for what is needed.

Coach each individual for what s/he needs. Not everyone needs motivation; information or skills training might be the more helpful response. Motivation, encouragement, and acknowledgment are appropriate tools when an individual or team is making a final push on a project and exhausted. Information might be the more appropriate tactic if there are company or market changes that impact what your team is working on, and your team needs to know how to adjust. Finally, what looks like low morale or disengagement might simply be confusion of what to do next or how to accomplish it. In this case, more information or specific skills training is in order. A motivational speech will be insufficient.

Provide immediate and long-term support.

Whether it’s motivation, information or skills training that is needed, be prepared to offer immediate and long-term support. I once consulted at a company rumoured to be selling off several divisions, so morale and productivity were low, as everyone gossiped among each other about who was next to go. Immediate support in this case would be to share whatever news is available. Even if you don’t know next steps for sure, you can share that you don’t know so your team realizes you are staying on top of developments and sharing all you have. Longer-term support could be to implement regular briefings (so people know that information is forthcoming, and you have a regular forum in which to share) and an action plan for getting things done in this new normal. Immediate skills training is to support your team for the specific project at hand, but if you see a skills void (e.g., technical training, institutional knowledge), on-going training would be ideal long-term so that you solve for this problem once and for all.

Provide what is within your power to change.

If your company doesn’t provide on-going training and you don’t have budget to send your team for training, then isn’t something you should promise! This might seem obvious but I have seen too many managers make empty promises to keep their team happy, only to lose trust and have a bigger headache down the road. Once you sense a morale issue, as you uncover what the specifics are for each individual and the overall team, you also want to do your own research into what your options are. What news can you share? What training is available? What budget do you have for team-building activities? What leeway do you have for comp days or other spot gestures?

Be specific but stay flexible.

A big source of morale issues is uncertainty and lack of transparency. As a manager, you want to be as specific as possible — in your coaching, in the information that you share, in how you direct your team – so that your team can effectively follow your lead but also to inspire confidence and drive momentum. That said, business conditions change and people change, so what works initially may not be as effective later. Or you may think one approach is needed (whether motivation, information or training) and then it turns out you misread the situation. Leave room for flexibility – to experiment with your approach, to change direction, to respond to new circumstances. Yes, this means you’ll need to stay vigilant, but that’s your investment in leadership!

The general economy is volatile, and business conditions are changing rapidly. If you don’t yet have morale issues among the people you manage, you will sooner than later. Be prepared to take multiple steps and try a variety of approaches to motivate your team.