My department is demoralised and lacking in energy. With no money to give them, what can I do to get people motivated again?
Well-paid consultants are fond of remarking that money is not a motivator, just a hygiene factor: although in absolute terms people obviously need money to survive, in the end it's not the money but what it symbolises that has the motivating effect.
It's a hard message to swallow for those feeling significantly worse off, but there is some truth in it. Think of the jobs that gave the most job satisfaction and, chances are, the most enjoyable were poor in terms of financial reward: something else provided the satisfaction. Money is often a proxy for recognition, and thus important when organisations are weak at providing other forms of acknowledgment. If money is the only indicator, its withdrawal is more than a pain in the wallet - it hits at self-esteem.
I have worked recently with two groups who found that the large bonuses to which they have been accustomed - and have regarded as their right - failed to materialise this year. As a result they were over-stretched financially and - like your department - demoralised. After the initial shock, they exhibited all the other stages of the well-documented change curve: denial that it will affect them, then anger and blame-seeking, followed by grieving about what has gone. They ceased to operate as a team, retreating into themselves, or forming small, strident huddles. This put them at the bottom of the curve in terms of energy and effectiveness.
The first step in getting those involved to move to a more productive place was to bring them all together, away from work, to make sure that everyone had an opportunity for a good moan. Trying to keep a lid on negative emotions and behave rationally is counterproductive in the long term. Unexpressed disappointment and anger turns to bitterness and cynicism. Having a safe place to air feelings is important, and allows people to realise they are not alone in their suffering. It is also useful to know that other employees, including managers, have experienced similar issues and feelings. Giving vent is a healthy way of clearing the path.
Though essential, getting rid of the gripes is backward-looking, and once it is completed the next step is to get the team to start thinking about what is still working well and what needs to change in the future. My two groups were able to acknowledge that, despite the lack of monetary recognition, they are still as good players as ever, even if slightly battered by adversity.
If you take this route, it is essential to engage managers in identifying the future they want to create. Achieving a sense of common purpose works wonders in shifting people from victim mode to a new identity of individuals with choices, able to exert a positive influence on their destiny. Make sure that, as well as the dreams, there are some quick wins, including practical first steps that are easy to implement and will quickly have positive results.
Of course, lack of a mega budget for bonuses doesn't mean the end of all treats and incentives. It's a great mistake to go overboard on austerity - it breeds a penny-pinching, poverty culture, which can kill the bold thinking that changes fortunes. As Robert Kiyosaki points out in his book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, there is a difference between being poor and being broke. The first is permanent, the second is a temporary state of affairs.
In this spirit, a client of mine recently awarded a weekend in Paris for the best sales performance of the month. For less than pounds 500 he gave an incentive to a department of 30 people, creating healthy competition and a good deal of goodwill, not to mention achieving the best sales month since 11 September. Others swapped their lavish office party for a team lunch over a bowl of pasta in the local Italian restaurant and had a thoroughly good time.
Start building alternative methods of recognition now - for example, regular appraisals that consider contribution to the organisation above and beyond the job description. If you'd like managers to play an active role in bringing on newer recruits, make sure they are acknowledged when they do it. At Pret a Manger, when you graduate from making sandwiches to supervising others in the task, you receive gift vouchers to give to the team members who helped you gain promotion. No doubt you and your managers will think up some equally effective ways of rewarding those who go the extra mile. And be generous with praise - it's free!
Miranda Kennett is managing coach at The Coaching House (www.coachinghouse.com) and a founding partner of The Management Due Diligence Co. If you have an issue you'd like this column to cover, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.