Keeping employees inspired during downturns

August 17, 2020

A company’s worth is the sum total of the ability, capacity and creativity of its employees. No company can be greater than the capacity of those who people it. So, whether a company is up the hill or down the valley is a function of the ability of those who constitute it. The wellbeing of a company is directly proportional to the appropriate deployment of the skills and aptitude of its workforce.

Staff motivation is quite easy during a boom because the company can inspire the workforce through promotion, salary increase, special allowances, bonus packages and other incentives. But reverse is the case during a downturn because the company itself is in a strait and has probably resorted to layoff of staff and salary reduction. So, it cannot dispense monetary goodwill to keep staff members’ morale up. However, without stimulating and keeping employees fired up, a company’s journey in the valley will not only be tortuous and arduous, it will also be painful and stressful.

So, what great leaders do is to keep the enthusiasm of their workforce high even when the situation is bad. They know that an enthusiastic workforce is not only productive but is also creative and there is nothing that turns the tide in favour of companies during a downturn than creativity.

Getting employees fired up during a downturn involves the following:

Build confidence in them

During a crisis, the people want to hear their leader. This gives them confidence and raises their hope that the crisis would not crush them. The danger of keeping mute and refusing to speak to the people is that it would make room for rumour to gain ground and this may work against whatever the organization is doing to check the crisis.

Leaders don’t speak just to inform, they speak to transform. No other time is this more necessary than during a crisis. In times of crisis, the leader needs to let the people know that he  has their back and will do everything to protect their interest. This is a confidence-building mechanism that will spur the people to give their best for the organization.

In times of crisis, people are hungry for something to believe. They want an assurance that things would get better. They want to know that their problems would be solved. They want to be assured that their future is secure. So, they look up to their leaders for reassurance.

Practise employee engagement

Gallup Poll says, “A job has the potential to be at the heart of a great life, but only if its holder is engaged at work.” Stretching this further, The Conference Board, a 501 non-profit business membership and research group organization, noted, in 2006, that almost two-thirds of all employees are only 33 per cent as productive as they could be because they don’t understand what they are asked to do. Similarly, Harter, J.K., Schmidt, F.L., and Hayes T.L in an article published in Psychology, posited that businesses with more engaged employees have 51 per cent higher productivity. Also writing about employee engagement in his book, Getting Engaged: The New Workplace Loyalty, Tim Rutledge says engaged employees are not just attracted to their work, they are also inspired by it and committed to it. According to him, engaged employees say, “I want to do this”, “I am dedicated to the success of what I am doing” and “I love what I am doing”.

So, to spring a company out of the pains and pangs of a downturn, the leadership has to practise employee engagement because it is at the heart of productivity and achieving corporate objectives. Organizations that effectively engage their staff members stand a better chance of changing the tide in their favour and buoying their bottom line than those that do not.

To properly engage employees, a company has to value the person of the employee and value his contribution which would result in building trust between the leader and the led.

The fundamental factor that determines whether an employee will be fully committed to the vision of the organization is what he perceives to be the value placed on him by the organization. If the employee is made to believe that he is valued, he works out his heart for the company. However, if the vibe emanating from the leadership is that he is of little worth, he recoils and holds back his contribution. Nobody enjoys being taken advantage of. No one appreciates his person being disparaged. Nothing turns a workplace into a toxic environment faster than when employees feel their worth is not duly recognised.

In addition, an organization is a system with different units and segments contributing different values to the actualisation of corporate goals. In a properly run workplace, every staff member contributes one way or the other to the overall objective of the organisation.

When employees, whether in the core operation of the organization or its ancillary, are made to know that their contributions are critical to the overall objective of the organization, they own that particular process. They transit from being mere ‘space fillers’ or marginal contributors to invaluable contributors. They bring in their best to the job and surpass expectations.

Once these two are in place, trust is the natural consequence. For as long as the workforce trusts those in the leadership, they can go out on a limb for them to ensure a change in the company’s narrative.

Fire up their creativity

A difficult time such as a downturn requires a new thinking and trying out new things. This is the realm of creativity. So, to fire up employees’ creativity, the leader needs to create problem-solving groups with the aim of getting the workforce involved in the process of solving the corporate problem. If they are involved, not only will they understand what is going on, they will also buy into what the leadership is doing to reverse the trend and be so committed that they would pull all stops to get the company out of the strait. But if left out, their commitment level heads south and getting out of the mess may be longer than expected.

Aside creating problem-solving groups, the leader can also allow individuals to come up with new ideas which the company could deploy to have a better result.

In the 1950s, Colgate-Palmolive was having issues with its sales figure which had stagnated for a while. As it was the company’s practice, the management threw the problem open and encouraged the workforce to generate new ideas that could boost sales. After a while, one of the employees came up with an ingenious proposal of increasing the width of the toothpaste tube hole. He was able to persuade the company’s leadership that by increasing the toothpaste tube hole from 4mm to 5mm, more toothpaste would be used per day by each customer with the overall effect of the company being able to sell more. The company tried it and was able to increase its sales.

Inspire hope

A time of crisis is a trying time for everyone. It is a time of uncertainty, fear and perplexity. But if anyone can be forgiven for giving in to any of these emotions, certainly it is not the leader. The leader must always give hope that would dispel every form of fear, hopelessness and even helplessness. As a matter of fact, leaders are merchants of hope. One of their basic responsibilities is to dispense hope to their people. Hope provides the energy that keeps the people going; it builds self-confidence in them and enhances their self-esteem. When hope is lost, all is gone.

For the workforce to change the company’s narrative, they must be filled with hope not despair. If they are hopeful, they will give the effort their all. But if they surrender to despair, the battle is over. The leader does not need to shield the fact from his followers but he should inspire hope in them so that in spite of the prevailing darkness, they will still see the silver lining. That is what Sir Winston Churchill did for the British forces during the Second World War.

During the war, virtually everything that could go wrong had gone wrong with Britain. European countries were falling like a pack of cards to the Adolf Hitler-led German forces, yet Churchill refused to capitulate. Rather, he kept raising the hope of the people through his oration and positivity.

As the war raged on and it appeared as if his country was doomed to fall to Germany’s superior fire power, Churchill said, “Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fall, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour!’”

At the end, not only was Churchill able to win the hearts of the people through his inspiring words, the tide turned against Germany and Britain was saved from what seemed an imminent defeat.

With an inspired workforce, anything is possible.


Train them

Training stimulates performance. When an employee learns new things, he is eager to deploy the new skills and contribute his quota to strengthening the company and improving its performance.

But apart from building workers’ capacity and honing their skills, exposing staff members to training programmes passes a message to them that they are valued by the company. Training staff is an investment in them. Since no one invests in a worthless person, the staff members that are sent for training see themselves as being precious to their organizations and this boosts their commitment and encourages them to do more for the organization.


Last line

With an inspired workforce, no company is ever beyond redemption.


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