During difficult economic times, how do leaders deal with the challenge of retaining and motivating their best people ?

In an article in the Harvard Business Review online, Kevin Coyne says that many examples of high morale come from situations of great unhappiness and stress. He suggests the following will sustain high morale:
1. Employees see that their team's work is contributing to making others' lives better, rather than just a product or service;
2. Employees need to feel that their ideas are listened to and acted upon to feel part of solving problems;
3. If cost-cutting measures are necessary, do them all at once, rather than attrition by a thousand cuts;
4. Employees need to feel optimistic. Leaders can help people see a brighter future beyond the layoffs and cutbacks.

Certainly, leaders need to communicate quickly and often about company developments, and not leave employees with extensive periods of time to catastrophize their thoughts. And that communication needs to be honest and not manipulative.Leaders need to walk about and make personal contact with employees, and not isolate themselves in their offices and communicate only by email.

Also, a sense of community is critical during difficult times.Leaders can help to develop this feeling of being together in the lifeboat by funding and organizing some low key, modest but fun social events for employees. Having employees involved in giving back to the community can also help take their focus off the difficult situation. We know from psychological studies that the engagement in giving to others can heave a significant impact on motivation and mood.

Finally, leaders need to avoid the typical and often usual cost cutting measure of cutting out or severely reducing training and development. While the high cost, high profile seminars and conferences might be expendable, retaining high ROI personal and professional development programs, particularly coaching, sends a message to employees that they are worth the investment, regardless of the times.

Often, the real test of character for leaders is how to lead during difficult times, not the good times. And that requires a knowledge and demonstration of the "soft" skills of inspiration, influence and knowing how employees can motivate themselves during stressful times.

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