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Keeping Spirits Up in Tough Times

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No matter the economic climate, companies have a hard time servicing customers, working with vendors, and generally advancing in the marketplace without a decent level of employee morale. But with current projections stating that business will continue to remain relatively flat over the course of the year, how can employers maintain—or even boost—their employees’ spirits?

David Bowles—a consultant and speaker based in Rancho Santa Fe, CA, and author (with Cary Cooper) of Employee Morale: Driving Performance in Challenging Times, as well as the upcoming The High Engagement Work Culture: Balancing Me and We (both published by Palgrave Macmillan)—believes that for many employees, the most fearful times are behind them. “It’s been a rough go, and a lot of people have lost their jobs, which is very unfortunate,” he said. “But, for the employed, they are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.” Reality versus what the mainstream press is reporting is often quite different, he added.

Bowles noted that while it’s the employer’s job to nurture a positive working environment, in the end it’s incumbent on employees to decide whether or not they are happy with where they work. “Morale is when we feel good about working at a place, and we go above and beyond,” he said. “Your job is to create this environment in which the workers choose to put themselves into their jobs with their heart and soul.” You can’t really create employee morale, he said; you can only provide the right environment in which it may flourish. “Ultimately, it’s up to them.”

As with any successful enterprise, communication plays a major role in maintaining employee morale. “What we can’t do, when times are tough, is let the employees fill in the gaps on their own,” said Tom Stimson, president of The Stimson Group, a consultancy based in Dallas, TX . “We have to be open and forthright about what’s going on and what the challenges are, because they can help.” He observed that business owners often overlook this fact—that there is a tendency to retract and try to solve problems all alone. “They forget that they have employees, and that those employees are there for a reason.”

Based in Amarillo, TX , Audio-Video Corporation houses a systems integration firm, a security company, a distributorship, a pocket-paging company (a service still very much required in the Texas Panhandle), and the 20 employees that work for these organizations under one roof. President James Beckham relayed that in order to maintain morale, it’s necessary to acknowledge—especially during tough times—that everyone is in the same proverbial boat. “Everything that I do affects everybody downstream from me, down to the lowest-paid wire puller. Conversely, everything the lowest-paid wire puller does affects me,” he illustrated. With this philosophy deeply ingrained into the company’s culture, employees tend to hold each other accountable for their actions. “We’re supporting over 20 families here. For all of us to be able to support our families, we need to make sure that we all have a job, and that we have a stable company. We are all in this together.”

This means that business leaders must, well, lead by example. “A lot of times leaders think, ‘My job is to lead, so the rules don’t apply to me,’” Stimson said. “They follow a different set of rules, and they say one thing and do another because they think that they have a different agenda in the leadership role.” This can be extremely frustrating for employees: Why, for example, can the boss go out and sell lowmargin work, but if his subordinates do the same, they are reprimanded?

Beckham noted that due to its geographical location—where economic trends tend to lag behind those of Houston and Dallas— Audio-Video Corporation is just beginning to experience the effects of the recession. “This is great for us, because it lets us see a problem coming, but it also means that we lag behind on recovery,” he conceded. Thus, the downturn became especially apparent at the end of 2011, when Christmas bonuses were significantly smaller than those the company distributed in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Acknowledging that this could lead employees to believe that the organization—and therefore, their jobs— were in danger, Beckham sat down with his entire team to explain that while business has slowed, the company had the time to prepare for this, that the company remains profitable, and that no one is going to lose their job. Now, Beckham’s focus is engaging employees in maintaining profit levels. “What we’ve got to do, going forward, is to work smarter and faster. We all have to keep profit in mind with everything that we do.”

Like Bowles, Stimson is hesitant to buy into the idea that times are as tough as some are claiming them to be. “Technically, this recession ended two years ago. The effects of it haven’t ended because we’ve changed the metrics that we need to run our businesses,” he said, adding that systems contracting firms must focus on generating revenues from services—not products—in order to keep up with the times. This becomes a question of management, he says, because the opportunities continue to flourish. “I haven’t found an integrator, recently, who can hire the people they want to hire. That is not the sign of a bad economy; that’s the sign of a good economy.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/ editor.

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