Motivating Teams during Trying Times


October 2003

Motivating Teams during Trying Times

CIDMIconNewsletter Beth Barrow, Resource Manager, Motorola, Inc.

In 2002, most high-tech companies were plagued with re-orgs, layoffs, and financial constraints. It’s hard enough keeping folks motivated to begin with, but as managers it is at times like these that the cards are stacked against us. In tough financial times, especially during layoffs, traditional motivating tactics fail. Teambuilding, motivational training, and group celebrations seem trite and self-indulgent-and that is if you have money to indulge. Even everyday motivators need to be tweaked to work in an environment that is dealing with such churn.

Who moved my cube?

This is the case our management team found itself in last fall. Our group had thankfully remained insulated from the layoffs, but it was suffering from low morale and survivor’s guilt. Our workload was higher than ever. There was little chance of getting additional resources-we were hesitant to even ask. Our current building had been sold and was becoming emptier daily. The group was tired of seeing their coworkers say goodbye.

Just when we thought the group had hit bottom, we received the news that our group was moving to another building. Now, moving is stressful enough under normal conditions, but this move had some added spice. We weren’t given a move date. We weren’t told what building we were being moved to. And, we were scheduled to be moved sometime over the next three months, but nobody could tell us exactly when, where, or how long it would take. Oh, and the cherry on top of the stress sundae was that all of this was happening during the holidays!

Throw Me a Fish!

You have probably seen those little plaques that say, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It’s not exactly a commonly used business principle, but it is what helped guide me through the next couple of months. See Table 1.


Outside our control

Within our control

The fact we had to move

What we produced

The location of the building we were moving to

What we moved

The schedule of the move

Our attitudes and behaviors between now and the move

The fact that others were losing their jobs

Staying focused on business deadlines and required deliverables during this time was challenging, but the team pulled through with minimal business interruption. We learned our new building was almost an hour away from our current facility. This was great news for some but not for others, whose drive time was increased exponentially. What we moved was easy enough. The management team’s primary problem was figuring out how we were to keep the crew motivated through the move process. Without the proper motivation, there is no telling what behavioral problems we might encounter.

Group Grief

I remember thinking, “Well, we still have our jobs,” but I certainly did not say it out loud. The team was traumatized. Not only were they dealing with the logistics regarding the impending commute; many of them had been sitting in the same cubes for more than 10 years. This was more than a business issue: it was an emotional uprooting.

As the group processed the information, the management team watched them travel through several moods, sometimes as individuals and sometimes as a single entity. It wasn’t until close to the move date that I recognized that the mood of the group followed the phases of grief as determined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

There is no need to dust off your college psychology books, folks. In On Death and Dying, Kubler-Ross states that there are several phases of grief that people undergo when dealing with a major loss (Scribner’s 1969). These phases (in sequential order) are shown in Table 2.


Phase of grief

Characterized by


Confusion, dazed silences


Emotional flare-ups, breakdowns in communication


Attempts to find alternate solutions, rationalizations


Sulking, feelings of hopelessness


Renewed focus, objectivity about issues

Table 2. Phases of Grief

Our group managed to get through each phase in about a month or so. Figure 1 is a graph that shows my perception of the group’s progression through the phases of grief. (I based this graph on how much time I had to spend dealing with each phase of the process.)


Figure 1. Progression through the Grief Process


  • The earlier phases require a lot more management time. For example, denial and anger took about 80 percent of my time for two months.
  • The only reason the acceptance phase is higher than the depression phase is that we were actually moving at that point.

Where a person is in the grief process determines the type of support they need. For example, trying to cheer up a person who is dealing with denial is futile. In our case, it turns out that the management team had been intuitively providing appropriate support where we could. Table 3 summarizes how the group behaved at each stage and what the management team did to keep them on track.

Table 3. Group and Management Responses in Each Grieving Phase

Phase of grief:

How the group responded:

What management did to keep the employees motivated:


Stunned looks, a lot of silence as people tried to process the news
Key motivators: empathy, patience

We gave the group enough space to discuss the subject among themselves. We were compassionate and listened to them when they chose to come to us. We did not try to “solve the problem”; we just listened.


Some backbiting, people escalating the move to HR, formation of cliques, desire to be laid off instead of being moved in some cases
Key motivators: straight talk, focus on deliverables

This was the hardest phase for the management team to deal with. We remained empathetic whenever possible, but found that we had to employ a delicate balance between empathy and setting boundaries to keep the group on track. We had to address undesirable behavior early to keep it from spreading across the group.


Proposals for telecommuting plans (some very unrealistic), four-day work week propositions, and work access issues
Key motivators: listening, investigating possibilities

During the bargaining phase, the management team had to defend sanity as the various alternate work plans came our way for review. To ensure that the group’s expectations were realistic, we pulled in human resources and the health and safety departments. Several times, site policies and laws defined our options for us.


Procrastination to clean out cubes and common areas
Key motivators: laughter (often at ourselves), goal setting

As the telecommuting discussions ended, a silent dread came over the group. It was final-we were moving and that meant all of us. People were pretty focused on their operational deliverables at this point, but the group was in a serious funk. It was too early to do any significant packing. At this point, it was pretty much up to the management team to “defunkify” the group.

Definition: Defunkify, v. To move a group out of a “funk” or bad mood that is hindering them from greatness.

We decided that anything short of outrageous would be ignored, so we snuck in and decorated the office in a “Breathe” theme. We had clouds hanging from the ceiling, planes, fans, kites, birds, even the cow that jumped over the moon. This made people laugh, even if they were laughing at us. (We were not picky at this point.)


Packed and moved just before Christmas
Key motivators: celebrating success, acknowledging disruption

Acceptance started once we started packing. This was a huge relief for all of us. The physical activity helped a bit. People were busy and worked together to complete the move. We took a field trip to our new facility and visited another facility nearby to start familiarizing ourselves with our new surroundings. During this time, the group was self-motivated for the most part. Humor returned as we realized just how many staple removers and binder clips one department could stow away in drawers.

We moved in mid-December and had our end-of-year luncheon the day of the move. Spirits weren’t exactly high, but the group had pulled out of the tailspin and was feeling a bit of relief from having the move complete.

At our end-of-year luncheon, we celebrated our successful move and thanked everybody for tolerating the disruption of their work.

Table 3. Group and Management Responses in Each Grieving Phase

The following list describes 10 things you can do to defunkify a group:

  • Listen.
  • Recognize the difference between emotional venting, bargaining, and problem solving.
    • Emotional venting requires no action, just listening.
    • Bargaining requires quick boundary setting.
    • Problem solving does best with collaboration.
  • Don’t be falsely positive, just be honest.
  • Be realistic about options.
  • Laugh at yourself, especially if the group is depressed.
  • Don’t dismiss the change as trivial or livable.
  • Point out available resources.
  • Pick a good time to be outrageous.
  • Acknowledge the disruption.
  • Celebrate the success.


  • Do not expect everything you do to work for the entire population. If you can get about 25 to 50 percent of your group to buy in at the onset, you are doing very well.
  • Doing something is not always better than doing nothing. For example, the group really needed some process time without management interference.
  • Let peer pressure work to your advantage. If you can motivate a few key people, they will motivate others.
  • Listen without judging whenever possible. The only time it is key to impose judgment is during the anger and bargaining phases.
  • Do not be afraid to use all available corporate resources. Human resources and health and safety helped us tremendously during the bargaining phase. (People proposed things that simply were not possible.)
  • When things get really bad, laugh at yourself.
  • If the group gets stuck in a funk, do something outrageous to divert the focus temporarily.

The last phase

As I look back over the move, I am relieved that the group has accepted its new home. “Business as usual” has been a healing change. The anger dissipated when the group re-established its daily routines. And, although the depression is over, bargaining continues to this day.

In some models of the grieving process, hope follows acceptance as the final phase of grieving. Acceptance is about here and now, where hope is future-focused, optimistic, and leads to new opportunities. Acceptance is wonderful, but this manager is hopeful that hope will be the group’s next phase. CIDMIconNewsletter

About the Author



On Death and Dying
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, MD
1969, New York, NY
Charles Scribner’s Sons
ISBN: 0684839385