Employee engagement strategy: motivating employees in difficult times

CheerleaderOne of the most troubling aspects of turnaround situations, or indeed any business difficulty, is the impact it has on the people you work with. As a business owner or manager, you’ve got a lot on your plate trying to juggle all the issues you have to deal with.  But it could be argued that if you lose sight of employees during this time, you’re more likely to lose the value in your business, if not the business itself.

Employee engagement in turnaround situations needs to be a priority task.

We’ve looked before at how some employees who are left in the dark about business issues can panic and over-react. At the very least, they become demoralised as they worry about their jobs and their livelihoods. This leads us to look at what, in fact, motivates people to perform at their best.

What motivates us?  ‘It’s not about the money’, is a commonly used phrase in current motivation theory.  But if it’s not about the money, what is it about? And how do we identify the motivating factors for each of our employees so that as individuals they are performing at their peak, but also that they, as a group work, well together? Ideally, this exercise should really be done before any troubles arise in your business.

The Theories

Let’s take a look at two popular models on basic motivation to try and get a good feel of what we should and shouldn’t be doing to get the best out of our people, with a particular emphasis on the ‘money’ issue.


First, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs  states that there are five basic requirements that every human being needs to satisfy.  At the bottom, are biological and physiological needs such as air, food, shelter, sleep, etc. The next stage is safety, then social, such as work group, family, relationships, etc. The fourth level is esteem (ie, achievement, independence, responsibility, etc). And the final stage is self-actualisation, realizing personal potential, self-fulfilment and personal growth.

Maslow’s hierarchy says that only when a lower need is satisfied do we look at the next level. We will always be motivated by our lowest level of unmet need.

So, at the very base of this theory is the fact that you must have enough money to pay for  your basic needs. Anyone who wakes up desperate to earn enough money to pay the mortgage and feed the kids is not a balanced and well-motivated employee.

Satisfaction and dissatisfaction

The next model is a piece of research carried out by Herzberg et al (1959).

This came up with the theory that there were different sets of factors that created levels of either dissatisfaction or satisfaction in the workforce.


Motivation factors

Hygiene factors




Working conditions

The work itself

Interpersonal relationships


Pay and job security

Advancement and growth

Company policies


Herzberg’s “Motivation” factors were areas that he found could create high levels of satisfaction, and therefore would be motivators.

He found that what he called “Hygiene” factors were reasons for dissatisfaction when they were not met. However, when they were met, this did not translate into satisfaction – simply no dissatisfaction!  For example, someone who was very dissatisfied with their low pay would not necessarily identify high pay as a cause of satisfaction.

So, again, is it about the money? According to this model, money is not a motivator, but it is a hygiene factor, and therefore a pretty big cause of dissatisfaction if not right!!

Both of these theories suggest that satisfaction, and therefore motivation, can be increased by enabling workers to take responsibility for what they do and giving them scope to achieve and develop their skill base. I fully agree that the intrinsic rewards that can be derived from the work itself can be very powerful motivators to us all. But only if the basic, “hygiene”, need of a decent salary is taken care of first!

motvating employeesMotivating employees in difficult times – the real world

In the real world, all workers would like to say they love their work.  The reality is that few people have this luxury.  From both the theory above and our practical experiences, we know that we as managers can do something about this. We need to create a business culture to keep employees engaged:

  1. Make the environment pleasant and conducive to good work.
  2. Recognise excellence (in customer service, hitting sales targets, team work, product development, new business development, etc) quickly and publicly.
  3. Allow employees to have some control over how they work (this could be schedules, team members, product development).
  4. Let employees contribute. Give anyone who wants one a voice, by letting them contribute to your blog, or let them use ‘non-work’ talents by designing internal posters or organising employee functions.
  5. Implement a fair pay structure that pays equal employees equally.

The receipt of money in exchange for our work is a vital component to 99.9% of all workforces, and whilst true motivation doesn’t necessarily come from it, in my experience basic reward structures have to be of a level that the individual knows that the mortgage, groceries and heating will be paid!

You can always see when someone is struggling if you are close enough to your staff.  When I have had these situations in the past with particular employees, we’ve come up with things that can be done to help, like overtime, added responsibilities, change of reward structure and even loans when it has been a very trusted and valuable individual.  When I have done this in the past I have always found that you get it back in spades!  You change a worried and potentially de-motivated individual to a highly motivated and loyal employee overnight.

Company turnaroundSo I would say, No, it’s not entirely about the money, but without that basic and essential building block in your employee engagement strategy the rest of the theories will crumble.

I would be interested to hear of any of your experiences in motivating your employees or indeed, how you have been motivated, or de-motivated at work.