Keeping people motivated during uncertain times

#55, Apr 3, 2024

Once upon a time, in a tech org not far away, there was a leader…

A tech manager was worried about the motivation of her team. Her company had been making constant layoffs of people in various positions and in different offices around the world for the past 2 months.

The people on her team were already feeling insecure about their jobs and were starting to get demotivated. She wondered what she could do about this situation now.

Top-level executives had mentioned that for one more month, they would “restructure” the company, and in April, they planned to announce bonuses and salary increases. Her expectation was that her team’s morale would drop, despite the end of the layoffs.

She pondered what she could do then for her team.

Hi 🙂 Hari here.

/* started thinking about this yesterday, when I was waiting for the sushi to be delivered for dinner; started writing about it on a calm Wednesday morning in the living room, on the sofa my partner wants to throw away and buy a new one… I should write a tale on ‘How to say NO to buying a new sofa in a respectful way’, but that’s a whole different story 😀 */

Today’s tale is focused on how to keep people on your team motivated & engaged during uncertain times.

/* by the way, today’s tale is a real story we received in our podcast Radio Tochka 2 */

Should you talk openly about the issue?


I strongly believe that the worst thing you could do is to not talk about it openly. If you try to mask the issue, if you cover it up, people will fill the gaps on their own. And in those situations – people fill the gaps with their worst fears.

/* In another tale, I wrote about how to make your people speak up; there, I stressed on avoiding toxic positivity. Also, Vasi wrote why it’s important to be open and direct in the context of delivering bad news to your team*/

People on great teams talk about the tough issues.

So, what I do in similar situations is to face the problem together.

I did the illustration above when the pandemic hit and lockdowns were happening everywhere. Our small business was threatened. Tech companies were putting on hold all the training sessions we had planned with dev teams and tech people.

What we did in our team was:
1) Discussed our fears, anxieties and thoughts around the issue.
2) Had some time & space to process it on our own.
3) Did a separate discussion on our next steps.

I cannot stress the first step enough.

When we do training with dev people or tech leaders, we have a session we call Deep Dive. The goal of the session is to reveal the top 3 real issues they face on the topic we work on together (if we’re coaching a dev team – it’s the top 3 problems of the team). And then we work on finding ideas to solve their problem #1.

But I want to focus you not on the solutions, but on the constant feedback we always receive after a deep dive. People are always grateful that we discuss topics that they all know and think about, but never discuss together.

People feel better when they feel heard.

I remember 6 years ago I was having parenting issues with my toddler boy. All the parenting approaches we had applied with my then-wife were not working. All the advice I was reading in books and online were not working at all.

I was feeling miserable.
I was feeling insecure.
I was feeling like a failure.

Then, I was browsing a Facebook group on parenting.
One particular issue that another parent was sharing sounded exactly like my boy’s behavior. I quickly opened the comments to read some tips.

And there it was.

There was a comment pointing to another Facebook group called ‘Raising your Spirited Child’. I joined it and started browsing through all the past posts.

I think I was both smiling and crying at the time.
All the parents’ issues I was reading matched what I was observing at home. These parents were like me! I was not alone.

Now, the next line might sound awkward, but…

People feel better when they see others have similar issues.
Because they’re not alone.

Share stories, but don’t rush to solutions

Let me tell you a story that I read in Adam Grant’s book Originals.

In 2008, the level of motivation of Skype’s employees is at a critical minimum after the boom of the company stopped and the two founders had left. Josh Silverman, who is then named CEO of the company, has the difficult task of “steadying the ship”.

His vision is to continue developing the service – moving forward from audio to high-quality video calls. The employees are quite pessimistic and unhappy with his vision. They think it is impossible to implement the functionalities (and to have a user-friendly experience) within the set deadlines.

The idea isn’t just to provide the opportunity of affordable calls, but for users to connect when apart. In order to back his vision, Josh Silverman presents Skype employees with a series of stories that are inspiring and give meaning to their work and efforts.

There is a story of a husband and wife who kept their marriage because of daily Skype video calls although they lived in different countries for a year. There is a story of a father who served his country in Iraq apart from his family but still got the chance to see his children open presents on Christmas Day and so on.

/* I understand the irony of what I’m about to do next. This section is titled ‘Share stories, but don’t rush to solutions’… and I’ll give you a solution 😀 */

When your people are down, it might feel natural to you as a leader to give them solutions. But they need time processing what’s going on.

Stories could be a powerful ally.

Think about stories from the past when you were so worried, but things were later better.

Tell these stories.
Tell people what you did then.
Tell them the positive outcome.

But then let them find the lessons on their own.
Leave them connect the story you told with what’s happening now.

I recall my first year working. I was a junior software engineer.
A few days before my first performance review meeting, I heard that a team leader in the company was leaving. I was worried.

I was very ambitious and I was thinking: I look up to this leader, I want to become like him in the future… but if he’s leaving – that means that something is wrong with this company and I will be leaving as well very soon.

I pictured a negative scenario in my head.

During the performance review meeting, I asked people about this team leader. I was direct and shared my anxiety. What I didn’t know was that the team leader wanted to relocate to the US with his family. And our company actually helped him find a job there, working in a partnering company.

The situation was not all doom & gloom as I initially thought.

/* oh, and I stayed 10 more years in this company */

Rally people and focus them on an achievable goal

If you are a Friends fan, as our gang is, you’d remember the episode when Chandler and Monica were about to get married.

Chandler realizes what’s happening soon and he panics.

Similar fear appeared in the heads of the people from today’s tale.
They were scared about losing their job.
Even if they don’t lose their job, they might still be scared after the layoffs.

When people are scared, they react in different ways.

Some take care of themselves.
Others hide.
Third just stop caring.

What I’ve found that works well in times of uncertainty is to rally people and focus them on a smaller goal, that is more within their reach.

In the case of Chandler’s wedding, when Ross found him hiding, he asked Chandler to do things one step at a time. First to go home, then to wash, then to suit up.

When big negative events happen, people tend to lose their purpose.
They stop caring.

/* as Vasi wrote in one dose of soft skills, clear purpose is a key ingredient to making your people feel they own their work */

So, your job as a leader is to find purpose, find meaning and unite people towards this.

This could happen in several ways, but in the end – you should aim for three things: focus, meaning & reachability.

I already shared my preferred approach – do a second discussion with the team and now focus them on coming up with solutions to the problem. When people participate in the brainstorming, they are more engaged later.

Another way is for you to come up with a small goal and inspire people toward it. If you are a naturally gifted Galvanizer, as defined in the Working Genius model, you’ll have no troubles with this approach.

Sometimes, you can even find a bigger goal to fight for.
If you have read how OKRs were born, you’ll know that Intel were once afraid they’ll disappear as a company because of Motorola’s dominance. In these uncertain times, they created Operation Crush to align everyone and focus on their common enemy.

When done right, OKRs are a great tool for handling uncertainties.

/* I loved the stories I read in the book Measure What Matters, which gives you so many great insights on OKRs */

But what if you feel insecure as well?

When I shared a post on LinkedIn that I’m going to write about handling motivation in uncertain times, I got a great question from Petya Grozdarska:

“How managers can help their people have high engagement and motivation, when the manager himself/herself is unsure of what is coming?”

I already hinted at the answer of this question with the comic at the beginning.

But to say it clearly:
It’s OK if you feel insecure.
It’s OK if you are unsure of what is coming.
It’s OK to be vulnerable in front of your team.

My approach in these situations is to:
1) be vulnerable
2) be honest
3) take action

/* by the way, here’s an amazing piece Vasi wrote on 6 myths about vulnerability at work */

I share my worries during the discussion we do initially as a team.
I am honest that the situation is bad & uncertain.
But I also take action.

That’s the burden of any leader.
To act, even when scared.

So, if you’re scared – you could focus on the process, not the outcome.

There are so many unknowns to play with.
Focus on your area of control.
Focus on actions, regardless of whether they’re the best or not.

If you don’t act – you’ll lose your people.
If you are vulnerable and honest & then don’t act – things will get even worse.

How to keep people motivated
during uncertain times
(the checklist)

  1. Talk about the tough issue openly.
  2. Give time & space for people to process on their own.
  3. Share stories from the past, but don’t rush to give solutions – let people connect the current issue with the story.
  4. Focus people on a meaningful attainable (smaller) goal.

… and the team lived happily ever after.

By the way, did you fool someone on April 1st?

I posted this picture on LinkedIn two days ago.
So, if you need a soft skills pills dealer – I’m your guy 😀

Did you fool someone? I’d love to see/read some stories 🙂

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