Re-energizing Your Team (and Yourself) in These Hard Times

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September and October are critical months for your business. Between the sluggishness of late summer and the year-end holiday craze, there is a short window of opportunity to put some points on the board. We all know this year it will be more difficult than ever because of the weight of the sustained global recession and the distraction of the US election.

And let’s face it, you’re exhausted. And burnt out. That “restorative” summer vacation left you contemplating whether you’ll be able to afford one next year.

While the correlation between employee engagement and business results is widely recognized, it’s less clear how managers sustain employee commitment and energy in the face of these challenging economic times. What we do know is that economic contractions have a significant impact on organizations and the people within them:

  • The focus shifts from innovation to survival
  • A sense of urgency dominates, driving sometimes frenzied activity
  • Everyone is asked to do a lot more with a lot less
  • Tolerance for errors slips to zero, creating an elevated sense of personal risk

Does this sound familiar? In short, our natural fight or flight response kicks in during hard times and puts survival at the top of the priority list. If you don’t find a way to snap your teams (and yourself!) out of this reactivity, the anxiety will take on a life of its own and create a political, and sometimes even toxic, organizational environment. Before you know it, it’ll be New Year’s Eve and you’ll have nothing to show for Q4 but an exhausted team and a very steep hill to climb come the first of the year.

So what can a leader do to create an environment of expansion and possibility, even in the face of a sustained recession?

Work less, not more
If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times – “there’s just too much on our plate”. This appears to be a problem that we like to talk about a lot more than we like to fix. Most managers have simply accepted overload as a reality rather than questioning its persistence as a complaint. No doubt it’s true – organizations drown themselves in committees, staff meetings and uncoordinated initiatives – but the problem here isn’t the work necessarily, it’s the quality and essentiality of the work versus the time spent. Lightening the load on your employees, through dialogues about what really matters, will pick them up emotionally and physically.

Don’t outsource engagement
The job of a leader is to create connection and meaning between what the organization is trying to accomplish in the world and the beliefs and actions of the team. You can’t outsource this kind of engagement to HR.

Leaders must create connection for their teams by bringing them into meaningful dialogues around where you’re headed as a function, as a business unit or as a company. When we talk to employees across industries and organizations, we frequently hear about an unspoken rift between senior leaders and managers just a level or two down. Everyone has heard of “management by walking around”, but in the face of urgent priorities, most leaders let this go first. Don’t. Your teams need to see you, hear you and feel connected to you in order to believe in what you say.

Invest in your team
No doubt, cost saving measures are in place at your organization. The annual third quarter memos banning travel, events and external resources have been circulated and everyone knows it’s austerity time. Don’t fall prey to short-sightedness. The economy will turn around and you need a team with the commitment, know-how, and collaborative skills to take advantage of that lift. Consider a business-focused problem-solving offsite to address a key customer issue or to find workload you can eliminate. Skip the fancy hotels and exotic locations and invest instead in well-framed and productive dialogues about what you’re facing and what you can do together to change the tides.

Invest in yourself
A leader is the emotional center of gravity for a team. How you manage your own reactions to challenging times will set the tone for everyone else, thus your own self-renewal should be a high priority. Reflect on your own beliefs about what’s happening. If you hold the belief that you, your team and your organization can thrive, that there are opportunities to be found, and that you’re just the folks to do it – you will!

The choice is yours. Pull the blinds and wait out 2012 or kick it into high gear on behalf of you and your teams. Enthusiasm is contagious and so is malaise. Which one would you rather stand for?

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