3 ways to inspire your employees during the pandemic without pretending like everything is fine
- Steve Johnson is the president of Berkshire Grey, a company that builds AI-powered robotic systems to help retailers, ecommerce companies, and logistics providers.
- He says the best way to keep your employees inspired and productive is to be up front about uncertainty and to avoid acting like everything is going smoothly.
- Dig deeper to unearth your company's "noble purpose," and encourage your employees to share the "why" that keeps them going during tough times.
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In 1939, as the threat of German bombing loomed in London, the British Ministry of Information sought to galvanise its people. The carefully crafted government rallying cry - "Keep calm and carry on" - has gone on to be immortalised on everything from coffee mugs to t-shirts. During our current crisis, when the world again feels like it's turned upside-down, the catchphrase has been back in vogue.
But here's the thing: It's probably not helping.
As Covid-19 enters its second year, employees are stressed about the constant disruption and worried about health and safety. Here in Boston, schools are open one day, closed the next, and everyone's struggling with fluctuating stay-at-home orders.
In short, the time for feel-good aphorisms is long past. Everything is not fine. Just carrying on isn't cutting it. And all signs suggest that blind positivity is the wrong approach.
But what's the right approach? This isn't an academic question for me. As the president of a growing company, I think about how to sustain morale for my team all the time. Whether my employees are hustling in the robotics lab or drowning in Zoom calls at home, I know that finding a North Star in trying times is more important than ever.
I recently had a chance to talk about this with Lisa McLeod, author of "Leading With Noble Purpose," and came away with some lasting insights. Here are three critical ways to rally spirits and focus energy with your team, without resorting to toxic positivity.
Read more: Employees who trust their bosses have more energy, less stress, and fewer sick days. Here are 4 ways to establish trust with your workers, according to a senior vice president at Salesforce.
Emphasise real-world impacts
When I first joined Berkshire Grey, I'd mention what my company does - we're an AI and robotics company that supports the supply chain for retail and ecommerce - and people would get a little glassy-eyed. But when the pandemic hit and all the hand sanitiser and toilet paper vanished from grocery store shelves, the supply chain changed from an abstract concept to a lived reality, and a critical one, at that.
This was a surprise even for some of our own employees. People who thought they were just doing fascinating work on robots suddenly realized that they were playing a pivotal role keeping workers safe in warehouses and ensuring people have groceries. In fact, our business was deemed an essential service, and this became a powerful motivator.
Your company may not have received an official "essential" designation from the government; but the truth is, every successful business has a real customer impact in some way or another. You just need to figure out what that is.
To find your impact, McLeod suggests teams share specific, concrete stories about how your products improve lives and businesses. Uncovering your customer impact isn't just a feel-good experience. Studies show that, at work, we all have a desire to do a good job and have a real impact. Employees who find work meaningful are 69% less likely to quit, and have longer, more productive tenures.
Tell it like it (really) is
No one likes to deliver bad news. But playing dumb - and insisting on business as usual - can be far, far worse.
In a previous role, I once found myself flying around the country in the midst of the dot-com bust, laying off colleagues. It was rough work, but made much harder by the fact that our CEO was still telling everyone that things were just fine. His chipper attitude during a devastating time and the gap between messaging and reality crushed morale even further.
You might think you're protecting your team when you withhold bad news, but studies show that 46% of employees would rather leave their job than work somewhere without transparent communication. Transparency statistically improves engagement and morale, lowers stress, and boosts performance.
As McLeod notes, "People aren't stupid. They know when things are going badly." Respect your team's intelligence, and they'll respect you right back.
Take the initial chaos of COVID-19. In the background of our company Zoom calls during those early days, dogs were barking and kids were screaming. There was no point in pretending it was business as usual, and we made that clear. This honesty allowed everyone to stop worrying about keeping up appearances and, instead, focus on adjusting to a new reality.
Dig deep for your team's "noble purpose"
In the spirit of honesty: I'm a numbers person. Establishing and hitting KPIs has been in my DNA since business school. But I know that just chasing metrics isn't enough inspiration for many people.
I was working at an email marketing firm, of all places, when this lesson hit home. Our days were spent looking at open-rates, conversions, customer acquisition costs, leads and the countless data points that rule modern marketing. But what actually got me and my colleagues out of bed in the morning was something far more elemental: the realization that our technology was helping small businesses and the ordinary people who ran them.
Employees who feel like their work has clear purpose are more likely to thrive; they're motivated and passionate about their work. Purpose-led brands see their valuations surge. Indeed, history is filled with examples of small, under-resourced teams - Ben and Jerry's, Dyson, and even Apple - who beat formidable competitors because the smaller team believed in their noble cause.
So how do you find that purpose? McLeod advocates for conversation and open dialogue. Ask your team: How does our solution make a difference to the world? Why do people need that right now? How can we play a positive role in a challenging situation?
Ultimately, you probably won't remember whether you reached your revenue goal or missed it by a few percentage points. You'll remember the why that got you there.
Critically, for all of these points, finding genuine motivation isn't a top-down practice. It's about sourcing this inspiration from your team, rather than imposing it from on-high. Meaning comes from the ground up. Find it in the good times, and it'll see you through the not-so-good ones too.
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