Using the Power of Trust to Motivate Employees

Published: December 17, 2009 in Knowledge@Emory

With mass layoffs an all too common occurrence today, 2009 is leaving many of those still employed a bit shell-shocked. Some workers are simply wondering if they will be next, while managers are finding it difficult to lead during a time of great anxiety. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, “employers initiated 1,776 mass layoff events in the third quarter of 2009 that resulted in the separation of 277,924 workers from their jobs for at least 31 days, according to preliminary figures.”  The numbers represent a record high for any third quarter since 1995. 

Additionally, private nonfarm payroll employment fell by 5% over 2009, with the unemployment rate topping a record 10%. Payroll employment has dropped by a sizeable 7.2 million since the start of the recession in December 2007. A whopping 50% of this decline took place in the past three months, with job losses posted in almost every sector and industry.

Downsizings have occurred at tech giants Microsoft, IBM and Cisco, as well as in the beleaguered financial services sector, with Citibank, UBS, Credit Suisse and Washington Mutual already making large cuts. The retail sector has been especially hard hit, with Linens n’ Things and Circuit City shutting their doors. And, as automakers and financial institutions continue to struggle, the possibility for more bloodletting in these sectors seems possible.

Even in the midst of this tumult, work still needs to get done. But just how can managers continue to motivate employees during difficult times? Despite the negative news, professors at Emory University's Goizueta Business School agree that building and keeping trust remains essential to motivating through company and economic tumult. According to Russell Coff, associate professor of organization and management at Goizueta, employees need to believe that managers are telling them the truth about the company’s health and about job issues. “Trust is an essential managerial tool, especially when employees are faced with change,” he says.

Even when the news isn’t exactly what managers want to deliver, they need to be upfront with their staff, notes Coff. Often, change initiatives in the organization require employee buy-in, so the staff must be penned in on the efforts needed to retool and save the division, product line, or even the entire company. “The way the news unfolds will set the stage for how things go,” he says. “If everyone knows the need for change is apparent, then they have to be told how it might impact them, as they are going to be asking that question.” Coff notes that managers can leverage and work with what staffers know about the need for change, and then they may have a more willing partner to work with on those initiatives.

When cuts are inevitable

It’s obvious that employees would view job cuts as a major violation of manager and employee trust, says Coff. But just how managers go about the process is going to determines the way remaining employees view the employer. If cuts seem unavoidable, and those let go are given assistance and fair warning, remaining staff are more likely to rstay committed to the employer and motivated on the job.

But once wide-scale layoffs become necessary, Coff says it is not good for managers to belabor the point. “It’s not good to do cuts in dribs and drabs,” he says. Fortunately, most firms will go for as long as they can manage before instituting large-scale job cuts. “If the company is managed correctly, then they will get it done and get it done right, and there won’t be additional announcements right down the road.”

Peter Topping, associate professor of organization and management at Goizueta Business School, admits that companies are experiencing an especially difficult period in recent times, as credit dries up, consumer confidence falls, and layoffs become essential. “Many people are already working at a company that is lean, due to previous downsizings,” he says.

Even more problematic for some than the threat of job cuts is the workload for those left behind. “Burnout is a big issue,” says Topping. Managers are also feeling the pinch. Those doing well at a company may find they have new responsibilities as a company reorganizes. This may give managers even “bigger spans of control,” leaving some to worry about their continuing success in meeting work demands with trimmed resources at their disposal. Some employees may even experience “survivor grief,” he says, as they wonder why their colleagues were let go while they were able to keep afloat during the massive cutbacks.

For now, Topping advises those managing and working in this sort of environment to continue to put in their top effort. “The simplest way to preserve a job is to be the best at it,” he says. However, business and career development issues may need to be temporarily put on hold, he adds, as people move more into self-preservation mode. This is when it is essential to talk to staff in an honest and genuine way, says Topping. “Managers have to be trusted, and they need to listen when employees express their emotions.” But then, he adds, good managers will need to redirect and recommit themselves and their team to getting on with the job at hand. “You have to be clear and remind your people that they do want to work.”

Weathering the storm

If  a significant level of trust and open dialogue exusts between employees and managers, Topping says that team members will be better equipped to weather this sort of economic storm. “Managing is about empowering your people and giving them some sense of control,” he adds. But he does caution managers to get a handle on their own stress behaviors on the job, so that they don’t pass this on to their employees.

Lita Epstein, a 1989 Goizueta MBA, financial writer and author of Surviving a Layoff: A Week-by-Week Guide to Getting Your Life Back Together, notes that when people are worried about their livelihood, it certainly makes it hard to control the level of stress on the job. But she adds that many people are finding that they need to be self-motivated, so they can try to avoid the chopping block. “Often, in a widescale layoff, the company is cherry picking the low hanging fruit,” she notes.

Employees need to up their game, she says, to remain valued and, hopefully, on staff during a massive downsizing. She admits that those at the managerial level are feeling stressed as they lead during this difficult time, and many are also worried about their own positions with the company. “With the level of layoffs we are experiencing now, it’s just not clear where the ax will fall next.”

For a professional working today, flexibility in skills sets is often key to being a favored employee at work. “You have to look at life as a series of opportunities, and then you have to know which ones to go with,” says Epstein. She notes that managers do need to help motivate their staff, but the onus for having and keeping a job  truly falls on the individual. “People need to keep a record at home of their company successes, whether it be the projects managed or numbers produced,” Epstein says. This sort of information will allow you to talk more effectively and openly about your career, just in case you need to find a new job. She adds that it’s essential to build a narrative of your professional life, so that your level of success can be transmitted to a prospective employer.

Epstein interviewed professionals who survived a downsizing and those who were impacted by layoffs, and she notes that those who do happen to lose their jobs have to remain focused and dedicated to gaining a new post quickly. Job-hunting can be a full-time job, she says. But she also cautions that professionals—top, middle and entry level—shouldn’t wait for the layoff to happen before they think about their next career step. “Keep a list of clients and professional acquaintances from work on Outlook or print it out at home.” Vendors are also a good resource to tap into for possible job openings, she says, as they are sometimes the first to know of personnel changes at a company. “Vendors are servicing the same kind of companies you may work for, and so they’re a good place to network to find a new job.”


Updated December 20, 2009.


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