Re-Energize Your Burned-Out Workforce

November 30, 2009

The recession hasn’t just affected bank accounts and bottom lines—it’s also had a big impact on the morale and attitudes of the American workforce, says Jon Gordon, author of “The Shark and the Goldfish: Positive Ways to Thrive During Waves of Change.”

“When fear and uncertainty become staples of daily work and life, they lead to a lack of trust, decreased productivity, poor focus, uninspired teamwork, and sub-par performance,” says Gordon. “As a leader, though, you do have the power to take positive actions that will inspire your team to not just survive, but to thrive.”

To make sure negativity and burnout don’t cause your team to mentally check out, Gordon suggests taking nine steps to boost employee morale and engagement:

1. Focus on people, not numbers

True, there are a lot of numbers to worry about—investments, the bottom line, next quarter’s income—and it’s easy to fixate on those figures.

But your company isn’t what shows up in the finance department’s spreadsheets—it’s the finance people themselves, and the HR department, and the salespeople, and support staff, Gordon says.

Ultimately, an organization’s failure or success is determined by the moods, innovation, energy, thoughts, and behaviors of the people who work there.

“It’s not numbers that drive people, but the people that drive numbers,” Gordon notes. “Too often, worried leaders approach this relationship backwards. This is not a time to ignore your people. Place your attention on them and on the process. Remember, culture drives behavior, behavior drives habits, and habits drive results.”

2. Model good behavior

Leaders set the tone for how employees respond to almost every situation. They can inspire—or they can extinguish. For example if you greet a worker cheerfully even though you’ve both had to come into work an hour early, he’s likely to mirror that attitude. Whatever you expect from your people, you must also expect from your senior leadership.

“Now is not a time to be barricaded in your office,” Gordon says. “Now is a time to be in the trenches with your people, leading, working, and building a successful future.”

3. Practice positive leadership

This means remaining purposeful in the face of adversity. While it’s important to acknowledge the obstacles your organization faces, don’t dwell on them in meetings or in individual conversations, and don’t bring up bad news before pointing out one or two things that are going well.

Don’t be disappointed by where you are; focus on where you are going.

4. Fill the void

These are uncertain times. Employees are questioning how their industries and jobs will be affected by the economy. They’re unsure about what actions to take.

This uncertainly creates a void—and where there’s a void, negativity will fill it. In the absence of clear and positive communication, people start to assume the worst, and they will act accordingly.

Leaders must meet with employees and continually communicate. You must be seen and heard—and you must also hear and see. If you fill the void with positive communication, negativity and fear can't breed and grow.

Next: Eliminate 'energy vampires'

5. Eliminate ‘energy vampires’

“Energy vampires” suck the energy and life out of everyone around them. Their presence can have a highly detrimental effect on the team’s morale, confidence, and performance.

Identify and approach the naysayers on your team, Gordon advises, and give them a chance to share in a positive vision. If they refuse, get rid of them.

“Culture fuels performance and results,” Gordon says. “ Once cancer cell can multiply to destroy the body.”

6. Forbid all complaining

Create a simple rule: Employees can’t complain unless they also offer solutions.

Gordon calls this practice “tough love for the good of the whole organization.” Turning employees from problem-sharers to problem-solvers will create a positive atmosphere that leads to new ideas, innovations, and success.

7. Teach staff to be heroes, not victims

Both heroes and victims get knocked down. But the former get back up.

Help employees realize they’re not victims of circumstance. Instead, they have significant influence over how things turn out.

8. Focus on the small wins

Place your attention on the small, ordinary, nonspectacular “wins” that add up to big successes. Small wins create the confidence to go after and create big wins.

“Employees might be discouraged or burnt out right now, so highlight and celebrate the small wins in order to foster loyalty, excitement, and confidence,” Gordon urges.

9. Place ‘sharks’ in key positions

Figure out which employees are “sharks”—those who are driven and motivated—and those who are “goldfish”—those who are natural relationship managers.

“Your sharks are the people you need in sales or business-driving positions,” Gordon suggests. “Your goldfish, or relationship managers, are better suited to answering phones, taking orders, and cultivating customer goodwill. Put your people in the right positions and allow them to do what they do best—and they will help your company to perform its best.”

The Shark and the Goldfish: Positive Ways to Thrive During Waves of Change (Wiley, September 2009, ISBN: 978-0-470-50360-7, $16.95) is available at bookstores nationwide, major online booksellers, or direct from the publisher by calling 800-225-5945.