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Maintaining Motivation, Employee Engagement, and Productivity in a Downturn Economy

Mar 1, 2017 | Finance, HR Matters

The Process of Transition – John Fisher, 2012 (Fisher’s Personal Transition Curve)


Kevin M. Dee

With an economy under duress in Alaska, many companies are struggling to keep their workforces engaged and motivated.

Work culture is crucial to positive approach and attitude

Economic pressures are requiring organizations to run leaner than they ever have before. Downsizing (oops, I meant right-sizing) is occurring all around us. This often means salary freezes and benefits either being reduced or benefit costs shifted more onto employees. Others are pushed to reduce their workforces, resulting in more work put on the shoulders of those left behind. Often a “do or die” and survivor mode mentality sets in.

Employee engagement goes down in a depressed economy. Many of the polls on workplace satisfaction and engagement have shown that employee engagement and satisfaction are joined at the hip and directly related to personal productivity and success. So how do you put on your happy face and stay engaged and motivated?

Well, there are actions you and your company can take to make a difference in enhancing and maintaining engagement and motivation—even in downturn.

The Gallup organization has been studying employee engagement and productivity for a long time and has surveyed 25 million workers regarding engagement and productivity. They have twelve statements they use to query workplaces on engagement, with workers answering yes or no to each.

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To identify the elements of worker engagement, Gallup conducted many thousands of interviews in all kinds of organizations, at all levels, in most industries, and in many countries. These twelve statements—the Gallup Q12—emerged from Gallup’s pioneering research as those that best predict employee and workgroup performance.

  1. I know what is expected of me at work.
  2. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  4. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
  6. There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  7. At work, my opinions seem to count.
  8. The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  9. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
  10. I have a best friend at work.
  11. In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
  12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.


When you look at these statements, they seem, at face value, obvious to everyone. When you ask a group to discuss these from a personal rating point of view, meaningful discussion ensues. When you look at them all and ask how much will it cost the company to implement each one so every employee can emphatically say yes to every one, the answer is little or nothing!

The cost is having managers who understand their role is to serve the people they supervise so they can be at their most productive. They can be most productive by being fully engaged. To be fully engaged they need to be connected into a workplace that values and cares about them and supports their success and protects them from people who are not playing by the rules.

Work Culture Is Crucial

Do your teams like and respect each other? Do your employees know each other more than their job functions? Does everyone have a best friend at work or belong to a healthy social group? Knowing who you are working with personally and what’s important to them is a foundational piece that goes along with engagement.

Sometimes the “we are all in this together” mentality can be a touchpoint to bring employees together to work closer and realize the benefits of teamwork and positive engagement. This can happen in a tight working group.

Supervisors play the largest role in creating these connections between employees that can bring everyone closer and raise the commitment level. On the other hand, some groups will come together to complain and whine about how it’s harder and how bad they have it. Again, front line supervisors set the tone by what they do or don’t do for the group on whether it is complaining or uniting to get things done despite adversity.

Know What You Are Facing

Is your workplace nimble and adapting quickly to change or are you more like a deer caught in the headlights, stunned and paralyzed wondering what’s going on? Or maybe you are as slow as a sloth? Understanding your adaptability and how change affects people and teams is critical information. Any change in a workplace, especially in a downturn, is a loss not unlike a death in the family. When people leave or salary increases are frozen or benefits reduced, we grieve. We miss the expected and our projection of what would happen into the future. When this occurs in the workplace, all the same states of grief can manifest themselves in workplace interactions. “The Process of Transition” illustrates what occurs during organizational change.

Groups need a place to talk about what is happening to them and positive support to deal with the changes. An empathetic HR department or supervisor goes a long way in supporting whatever changes you are confronted with. Without support some groups will get stuck in grieving behaviors and spiral down into all kinds of dysfunction and depression. Recognizing that change and the management of change are paramount to your organization is the best remedy. If you do not address change head on, you will likely end up with a workforce of Eeyores who are unproductive in your business.

Many Hands Make Light Work

Connecting work teams across different areas to find efficiencies and define performance expectations is a best practice in high performance teams. It is an essential practice in resource restricted teams. Focusing on what’s really important and getting things done in a “work hard, play hard” work environment will go a long way. This means that there has to be trust, commitment, and accountability in order to get commitment and results.

Groups have to come together to talk about systems and workflows and hammer out who owns what. I often facilitate groups, and when we are discussing to do’s or action items we ask: “Who owns this monkey?” Every action item, problem, or incomplete becomes a monkey that needs to be owned and accountable to a person.

Monkey tamers then must move their monkeys forward regardless of the obstacles they face until they are either tamed or accomplished. People start to talk to one another in order to make progress with their monkeys. Engagement increases and even a sense of fun can occur. “How’s your monkeys?” became a common greeting at one company.

When a team comes together in connected workgroups and a problem is resolved or a task is accomplished, they celebrate the success of it. They also will help out any member who is having trouble managing their monkeys. It is that connection and caring and belief in practice that if one of us fails we all fail, and if one of us wins we all celebrate.

Attitude and Approach

Finally, approaching change in businesses in a downturned economy requires an attitude of positivity. It’s all in your attitude and approach. You can complain and pretend you have a better choice or you can smile and be thankful for the opportunity to work with others who are doing the best they can to keep their heads above water too.

Groups that come together because of the hard times remember their efforts to fight the good fight. They don’t complain, they roll up their sleeves and get the job done. Our best work is when we face adversity. We come together to support one another through tough times and each other in connected meaningful ways. We are better for the common experience of it. When we temper our resolve and commitment, we are capable of great things no matter the challenge.

Kevin m. Dee has a master’s degree from vanderbilt university and is the president of kmd services & consulting. He has been providing organizational development services, human resources consulting, and leadership development since 1984 in alaska and internationally. Contact him at mail@kmdconsulting.biz.

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The track of oil and gas development in Alaska shows the footprints of bold companies and hard-working individuals who shaped the industry in the past and continue to innovate today. The May 2024 issue of Alaska Business explores that history while looking forward to new product development, the energy transition for the fishing fleet, and the ethics of AI tools in business.

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