Feature Article - January/February 2014

Navigate Through Turbulent Times

Learning to Motivate & Manage in 'The New Normal'

By Rick Dandes


At a time when political upheaval in Washington, D.C., market uncertainty on Wall Street and the lingering impact of the worldwide Great Recession seem to be the everyday norm, is it any wonder that many organizations have been seriously challenged by threats to their bottom line—and in some cases, survival—over the past year?

The world is in a "new normal," explained Rick Blabolil, president, Marketing Innovators, Rosemont, Ill. "We're in a constant state of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The external environment to a company is now always unsettled. We have to manage business and motivate people in this new environment."

Typically, Blabolil noted, the leadership of a company is evaluating and assessing the impact and dependencies of the external forces on the business. Employees will watch for the outcomes. How is management adjusting to the things that cannot be controlled, but must be dealt with? The fundamentals are about keeping open communications and transparency with employees so they feel "in the loop" regarding the actions and reactions being taken by their company.

"It is also important that management communicates their interpretation of the impact on the business to the external forces—in other words what is affecting us and why," Blabolil said. Everyone may not always agree with the assessment, but it is important for all to understand why a company is taking a particular action. This contributes to the culture and allows people to be intrinsically and extrinsically motivated.

In challenging times, warned Michelle M. Smith, vice president, business development, O.C. Tanner, Salt Lake City, "leaders are tempted to ignore their people and focus on numbers. But numbers are made by people. People will see you through the challenges of a constantly evolving market. So, mobilize people around a positive vision: have a bold plan, communicate expectations and celebrate victories. Also, give employees more empowerment and sense of ownership during a time when they are frustrated and feel powerless because of high levels of uncertainty in the workplace."

Now is not the time to hunker down and wait for a return to a normalcy that won't be coming, she said. Chances are high that most businesses have been altered significantly over the past few years, and it's everyone's responsibility to initiate programs that will artfully navigate turbulent times and allow organizations to navigate through them with new resolve and better value propositions. Now more than ever, appreciating great work can be your competitive advantage. Now is the time when even your best people can get discouraged and worried about their future. They need to know how much you appreciate their great work.

"I believe the single biggest factor standing in the way of higher engagement and healthier cultures across the board," Smith said, "is the lack of awareness by senior executives that recognition and incentive programs are a highly successful tool that they should be utilizing on an ongoing basis to address business issues."

Mike Ryan, senior vice president, marketing and strategy, Madison Performance Group, New York City, agrees with Smith that recognition can do a great job in not only helping top workers understand what it is they should be focusing on and why, but also helping them understand the direction of the organization during these tough times, so they can become more connected to it, more aligned and, therefore, more motivated.

"Turbulent times provide, perhaps, the greatest opportunity to build loyalty and tight bonds between your company and your people," Ryan said. "Incentive and recognition professionals can help create solutions that acknowledge the fluctuating scope of business and inspire your people to deliver their best in spite of the turmoil and uncertainty around them."

A CEO wouldn't consider putting forth a budget that didn't include marketing, legal counsel and financial services support, yet recognition and incentive programs are still largely viewed as a discretionary spend, only appropriate when times are tough.