When the going gets tough

by MPA24 Oct 2013

Ensuring your team stays productive when the pressure’s on can be a challenge for any manager. Leanne Faraday-Brash highlights nine ways to keep your people motivated

In the space of three days, the unthinkable happened. I read that China’s annual economic growth had slowed to 7.7%. Goldman Sachs was quick to point out the market must shed expectations continued double-digit growth could be sustained. Then, after digesting that one, I was sent reeling again when Apple reported its first profit decline in a decade.

As someone who’s mad for an allegory, it got me thinking about those individuals and teams who sustain extraordinary performance for an extended period, so much so that the unexpected is what we come to expect. What pressure is there on a manager and team members when the extraordinary becomes ordinary? How do you continue to inspire and how do you keep your staff’s hunger burning without burning out yourself in the process?

In the course of a typical working week, I found that four separate clients were puzzling over this same issue in very different contexts and which they described in very different ways.

In all these situations, an almost idyllic past has been replaced by a fraught, stressful state of play that requires balancing the needs of the team with the needs of the organization, and the needs of the team with the needs of the individual.

The most critical balance to strike is between relationship and outcomes. If we’re too soft on relationships, teams can run amok. If we’re too hard on relationships and only serve profits, targets, senior management and our own careers, we will have a target on our backs long after any problems have abated.

As a leader of people, you have a responsibility to strike this balance effectively. These nine strategies will help you manage your people effectively and keep their momentum heading in the right direction.

  1. Communication is critical. If you are asking the team to shift gears, make sure you spend more time on the why than the what. The former is more likely to be heard as inspirational, while the latter will be viewed as transactional. You will also need to be more accessible and visible, as your team will resent and disrespect any hint of abandonment.
  2. Be honest when you’re asking a lot from them. They know it, but need to know you know it so they can feel less exploited.
  3. Be compassionate, but don’t let anyone get away with murder. Don’t let anyone jeopardise good culture because they’re bringing home the bacon. That’s how we create vulture cultures that ravage the organisation.
  4. Don’t get sucked into doing other people’s jobs for them. Resist the temptation to do so, and take every opportunity to coach your people. Astute managers have worked out it is more sustainable and impactful to get everyone to do 5% more than for you to do 60% more on your own. Besides, stepping in or stepping on your people can result in one of two untenable outcomes: either communicating a lack of trust that stifles initiative and innovation, or allowing the lazy to take a leisurely ride on a titanium road bike while you wear yourself out running alongside them.
  5. Distinguish between those who want to and can’t right now, and those who can but won’t. The former deserve our compassion; the latter, an enunciation of potential consequences. I am not suggesting we ever become threatening or punitive for its own sake, but individuals who are not living up to the team code need to understand this is not acceptable. Ensure they see the line in the sand you’ve drawn before you ever penalise them. Set them up to win, but penalty box them if they refuse to take the field or play dirty.
  6. Don’t be too proud to bring in reinforcements. Unless you have advanced training in mental health first aid (and even if you do), don’t give struggling employees gratuitous advice, or tell them they should be at home when perhaps only work is getting them up in the morning, or pretend you have the answers or know how they feel. Let those who aren’t coping tell you what support they need and defer to expertise while checking in with your staff tactfully, discreetly and often.
  7. Put on your oxygen mask first. Don’t be selfish, but don’t assume you must be selfless. Martyrdom isn’t attractive and is often self-serving anyway. This is a time to take care of yourself. Opt for peer support over beer support, get a coach, have a confidant, and don’t ruin your relationships at home or become sick with guilt because you gave your life to the workplace and your kids don’t recognize you any more. Unless you really want to travel incognito, you’ll only get more stressed if you walk in the door and someone says, “Oh, it’s you.”
  8. Adopt a stable yet flexible style. Too many of us lurch from a relaxed management style (aka team neglect) to authoritarian when people “take advantage of our good nature”. Sometimes we lash out with exaggerated intensity because we got told off for seemingly letting the lunatics take over the asylum. The professional embarrassment alone may make us want to pay out on team members when, in effect, we were asleep at the wheel and blamed the tree when we crashed.
  9. Finally, don’t get too bogged down in the day-to-day. You’ll miss the bigger picture. This might be convenient and less confronting but not helpful to you or your team. If you’re a people manager, the best you can do for all concerned is to embrace the role and truly manage your people. Ensuring roles are clear and meaningful, expecting excellence, and providing compassion when required, balances what you want from your team and what your team needs from you.

Leanne Faraday-Brash is an organisational psychologist and principal of Brash Consulting. She is the author of Vulture Cultures: How to Stop Them Ravaging your Performance, People, Profit and Public Image.



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