Motivating Teams during Trying Times
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.
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.
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.
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
Table 3. Group and Management Responses in Each Grieving Phase
The following list describes 10 things you can do to defunkify a group:
- 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.
About the Author
On Death and Dying
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, MD
1969, New York, NY
Charles Scribner’s Sons