As if shrinking budgets were not enough, the latest challenge we face is survivor guilt. How do you keep employees motivated when they are worried about the future of their companies — and their own futures?

Smart managers get this. In fact, there's evidence that some companies have been increasing their employee recognition programs in tough times. In a report on the activities of its Fortune 500 customers, Globoforce, the provider of an online recognition platform, reported record use of peer-to-peer employee awards during the period from September 7 — when the government seized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — through November 17, the date of the Citigroup announcement of one of the biggest layoffs in history.

I recently spoke with Roy Saunderson, founder of the Recognition Management Institute, about motivating people in times of uncertainty. He suggested that downsizing companies do things like setting up a room for people to meet with fellow employees, and providing mini-courses on managing stress and information on counseling — but always “keep it within the positive zone.” Acknowledge the personal and professional losses everyone is facing — then move on. “Without being trite or Pollyannaish, reinforce positive messaging to keep the troops focused on success,” he said. “This is an economic battle that will be fought with committed, hardworking employees.”

And the fact is that some of the most valuable recognition and motivation tools you can use are free. Our magazine's motivation columnist, Bob Nelson, PhD, who just completed his 100th column for CMI! (see page 35), conducted an Internet survey that gave people choices of 52 items that would motivate them at work. The No. 1 factor they valued was “managerial support and involvement” — asking employees their opinions, involving them in decisions, giving them authority to do their jobs, supporting them when they make a mistake. Don't downplay the value of a thank-you card or e-mail, or a small gift for an employee who's had to put in extra time because of layoffs, or to reinvent his or her job. And don't forget your suppliers and customers, who are facing their own sets of challenges.

Set a goal for one gesture a day, or a card or e-mail once a week — and start today. It looks like this downturn will be around for a while, and you have a lot of people to touch.

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for an archive of Bob Nelson's past columns on recognition and motivation.