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How to Motivate People During a Recession

Sunshine bursting through clouds

Photo by JeffBelmonte

A few weeks into 2009, and we don’t need to look far for doom and gloom, hysterical headlines and grim-faced news readers. The main debate now seems to be how long, deep and bad the recession will be.

But what if it’s your job to inspire and motivate people to do their best? How can you stop all this negativity corroding your team’s spirit and damaging their performance?

If you’re a manager or leader, you’re probably as concerned as anyone about the economic situation. But your success – maybe even your company’s survival – depends on your ability to get top-class performance out of your team. Which isn’t going to happen if they are so stressed and depressed by circumstances that they are not 100% focused on their work.

Even in some of the better case scenarios, where the organisation’s future is reasonably secure, you may well not have much to offer them in terms of pay rises, bonuses and other incentives.

And you’re only human, so there may well be days when you struggle to motivate yourself, let alone people around you.

In this article, I’m going to offer some practical tips to help you motivate your team members in spite of – or even because of – the present challenges you face together. And I encourage you to use these same principles to maintain your own enthusiasm and commitment.

I’m going to draw on the new model of motivation that I created in my e-book How to Motivate Creative People (Including Yourself), but here I’m going to broaden the focus beyond ‘creative’ professions and focus on things you can do to raise morale and energy among people in any industry.

I’ll start by explaining why money isn’t the most important motivation for most people, nor the one that has the biggest impact on performance. Then I’ll introduce the four most powerful types of motivation. Finally, I’ll look at a range of scenarios you may be facing – from the ‘best case’ to the worst – and suggest which forms of motivation may be most effective in each case.

Obviously, the big-picture situation is serious and I don’t have a magic bullet. But I’m sharing these ideas in the hope that they will spark your managerial creativity and help you and your team rise to the challenges you face.

Money Isn’t the Most Important Motivator

I was prompted to write my motivation e-book after hearing several managers ask how they could motivate their teams when they could no longer offer large pay rises or bonuses. To me, it sounded strange question. Obviously money is important – but in most cases it’s not the critical factor that influences performance. And in some cases, offering more money can actually harm performance.

If that sounds naive in the current climate, let’s consider one of the worst-case scenarios for a moment. This is where somebody loses their job or their business fails, and as a consequence loses their home. They and their family have to move out into poorer quality accommodation, lose many of their possessions and survive on a far more meagre budget than they are accustomed to.

Now there’s no denying the pain of the financial hardships they face, and the practical difficulties this causes. But they have lost a lot more than money and a nice home. They also have an acute sense of losing:

  • their job satisfaction
  • their status
  • their independence
  • their sense of control
  • their sense of purpose
  • their sense of making a contribution
  • their sense of being appreciated
  • their reputation
  • their social life at work
  • their place in society
  • their dignity

This is the real pain of recession – not the financial indexes or the balance sheets, but the loss of meaning and purpose in people’s lives.

If we’re looking for the positives, we can flip this list over and reveal what really motivates people while they are gainfully employed:

  • job satisfaction
  • status
  • independence
  • a sense of control
  • a sense of purpose
  • a sense of making a contribution
  • a sense of being appreciated
  • reputation
  • a social life at work
  • a place in society
  • dignity

Again, money is important, but for most people it won’t outrank all of the items on that list. Even Gordon ‘greed is good’ Gekko would probably draw the line at a money making scheme that would limit his control and independence. And I’m guessing you and your team are nicer than him.

Why You Don’t Always Get What You Pay for from Employees

So far so touchy-feely. But with your hard-nosed business head on for a moment, you’re paid to deliver results, not just keep people happy – surely, when it comes to performance, you get what you pay for?

Actually, there’s a lot of research that suggests otherwise. Creativity is my own specialism, so I’ll take the research on creative performance as my starting point. Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile has carried out extensive research into the effects of motivation on creative performance, which has led to her ‘intrinsic motivation principle’:

People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself – not by external pressures.

Interest, satisfaction and challenge are all forms of intrinsic motivation, i.e. factors related to the work itself, not to rewards for work, such as money, status or privilege. Amabile explains that intrinsic motivation is crucial to success, since people do a better job when they are fully focused on the task — which is clearly more likely if they find the work enjoyable for its own sake.

When you put it like that, it sounds like common sense. Yet in many corporate cultures we are used to thinking of motivation principally in terms of rewards. The danger of this, as Amabile points out, is that focusing on money and other extrinsic motivations can actually distract people from the task in hand, and damage performance. If people are thinking about money — whether feeling resentful that they are not paid enough or hopeful that they will be paid more — they aren’t thinking about their work.

In my motivation e-book, I quote the words of Chris Jones, Chief Executive of J Walter Thomson worldwide:

People who are really good aren’t motivated by more money. They set themselves extraordinarily high standards. You won’t get their standards to go any higher by saying ‘ here’s some more money’.
Quoted in Tantrums & Talent: (How to Get the Best from Creative People), by Winston Fletcher, p.78

The quotations I’ve cited relate to creative performance, but I would suggest that the implications hold true for any kind of complex, challenging work – whether or not it’s labelled ‘creative’. I believe most people take pleasure and pride in doing a good job, over and above satisfying the requirements of their contract.

So if you’re a hard-nosed manager focused on results, then you’re in big trouble if your motivation strategy consists solely of dangling rewards in front of them. Especially when those rewards are in short supply.

More Than Money – The Four Most Powerful Types of Motivation

My model of motivation is based on four basic types of motivation:

  1. Intrinsic motivation – satisfaction in the work itself (pleasure, stimulation, learning etc)
  2. Extrinsic motivation – rewards for doing the work (money, promotion, perks etc)
  3. Personal motivation – individual values (a love of knowledge, power, security, self-expression etc)
  4. Interpersonal motivation – the influence of other people (competition, collaboration, commitments etc)

The links above will take you to my original blog posts about the different types of motivations. (Or you could download the e-book, where I have a lot more to say about all of them.)

Human beings are complex creatures, and we are typically motivated by a mixture of all four elements. This diagram can help make sense of this complexity:

The types of motivation combine to produce four key areas to focus on when trying to motivate people (including yourself):

For example, before taking a job, you will probably have a minimum expectation in terms of salary and opportunities for career advancement (personal rewards). You will also want to be sure that it offers you an opportunity to use your skills, learn and stretch yourself in pursuit of a meaningful challenge (personal satisfaction). Chances are you will also want to be given due credit for your contribution (public recognition). And given how long you are going to spend in the company of your co-workers, you will probably want them to be stimulating and enjoyable company (social interaction).

Most people will be motivated by a similar combination of factors, whether or not they think about it consciously. So if you are a manager and you only take one thing from this article, make it this:

Make use of all four types of motivation – not just personal rewards.

Combining different forms of motivation will have the biggest impact on performance. Taking a more balanced approach to motivation will also help you develop better relationships with everyone on your team. And the good news is, it needn’t cost you a penny more from your budget.

For example, you’re managing a team of skilled professionals. You recently had to deal with requests for pay rises (personal rewards), not all of which could be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. You were initially surprised when some people who seem perfectly happy with their salary started requesting more – but as the conversation is developed, you realised the problem wasn’t so much the money itself as competition between team members (social interaction), sparked when some of them realised they were being paid less than the others.

You decide to redirect this competitive spirit by making certain performance indicators public (social interaction) – but because you don’t have more money to offer (personal rewards), you make it clear that the top performers will be rewarded with the most interesting (personal satisfaction) and prestigious (public recognition) upcoming projects.

This gives the malcontents a focus for their energy – instead of bottling it up in resentment, they channel it into this opportunity to prove their worth and spend their time on the most exciting work. You still have some work to do to make sure the competition is balanced by a healthy team spirit, but by utilising their competitive motivation you have transformed a festering problem into a desire to achieve excellence.

1. Best Case Scenario – Business As Usual

In this scenario, the organisation’s survival is apparently guaranteed, and there is no perceived threat to jobs. The business may even be thriving, due to opportunities created by the current climate. E.g. the cobbler in the City of London who’s doing a booming trade mending the expensive shoes of (ahem) well-heeled bankers who are too nervous to splash out on a new pair.

The big dangerhere is complacency – after all if we can survive this, what do we have to fear? Which ironically might make it harder to motivate people in this situation than the ones below.

There is an opportunity for a leader to frame the situation as ‘a chance to get ahead’ – either pull away from the competition, create/exploit new markets or simply to set one’s house in order and invest resources in initiatives for the future.

Personal satisfaction:

Raise the bar. Make it clear that the challenge you all face is not mere survival but achieving excellence. There’s a real opportunity to pull away from the competition and/or to set new standards. Which translates into personal opportunities for everyone to learn and take satisfaction from making a meaningful contribution.

Personal rewards

One theme to emerge from the banking crisis has been a tighter link between performance and rewards. As far as it’s in your power, make it clear that excellence will be rewarded and there’s no room for freeloaders.

Social interaction

If there’s a lack of external competition, maybe you can promote healthy internal competition. This doesn’t exclude collaboration, which can thrive in a situation when people feel relatively secure, so utilise team structures, working methods and communication tools that promote mutual support and learning. Many people are motivated by the chance to make a significant contribution to the economy or society through their work — does your organisation do this? If so, make this explicit to the people who care.

Public recognition

Excellence loves an audience – which should be relatively easy to attract if you’re achieving extraordinary things. If you’re operating from a position of strength, you can experiment with different ways of getting your message out to the world – including huge opportunities in online social media. Fame is a huge motivator for some people — how can you make your team famous?

2. Next Best Case – Operating under Constraints

In this scenario, some business operations have been significantly curtailed, and some jobs are at risk or have already gone. The outlook is uncertain.

The danger is that people will focus on the negatives and become disheartened.

There is an opportunity to encourage people to use their creativity to find new market opportunities and ways of helping customers and clients. This has potential to forge a more innovative culture that rewards initiative and responsibility.

Personal satisfaction

Challenge people to find the opportunity in the crisis. Emphasise the opportunities for learning and creative problem solving. (Check out my article Spark Your Creativity by Thinking inside the Box.) Ask yourself ‘what’s the story here?’ — a powerful narrative can infuse daily activity with meaning and purpose for everyone. When you find a story that resonates with your team, do everything you can to communicate and share it with them.

Personal rewards

The link between performance and reward is even more important here. Be very explicit about the (new) behaviours you’re looking for, and how they will be rewarded. Remember that privileges and personal opportunities can be at least as powerful as money.

Social interaction

Frame the situation as a competition – either with competitors or simply the situation itself (‘we’re going to buck the trend’). A common enemy can be a powerful motivator. Facilitate ways for the team to support and encourage each other. Make full use of communication/collaboration tools, particularly with a distributed team.

Public recognition

Look for opportunities to recognise people’s contributions and to publicise the story you are telling together about the changes in the organisation. An authentic story of transformation may appeal to the press as well as galvanising people internally. There are plenty of ways to communicate your message to the world in a way that can make people feel they are part of something important – including a web, entering for an award, and of course interacting with your customers.

3. Next Worst Case – Fighting for Survival

Here the challenges you face are a matter of life and death for your team or even the whole organisation.

The danger is that people will feel overwhelmed and give up.

There is an opportunity for everyone on your team to be a hero, if they can rise to the challenge and survive against the odds. Make sure they know it!

Personal satisfaction

Ask yourself ‘what is the purpose of this organisation?’ (other than profit) — is it something that is too important to let go of? Why should the world care whether this organisation survives? What isinspiring about the challenge your face? Your storytelling skills can come in handy here too.

Faced with steep odds, it’s only human to worry. Encourage people to immerse themselves in work as an antidote to worry – and the means of averting disaster. (Feel free to pass on my tips about not worrying under pressure.)

Personal rewards

Obviously, success means people keeping their jobs – make sure they know how critical their efforts are to achieving this. And make explicit links between their contribution to the organisation survival and the rewards and opportunities that will be on offer should they succeed.

Social interaction

The approach here is similar to scenario 2. – but more intense, since the competition is a matter of life and death, and the common enemy has the ability to land a fatal blow. It’s also important to acknowledge the strain people are under and to help them find ways to mutually encourage and support each other.

Public recognition

This is their chance to be heroes! Let them know that if they save the organisation, the world will hear about it. Look for PR opportunities and other ways of telling the heroic story – not just at the end of the journey but along the way.

4. Worst-Case Scenario – Impending Doom

This is the endgame: the department or organisation is definitely going under, and everyone is going to lose their job. But there is still work to be done – commitments to be met and projects to be finished all wound up. As a manager, it’s your job to make sure these things happen. And because there is no longer any carrot or stick, it’s even more crucial that you utilise the other forms of motivation.

I should perhaps mention that I’ve experienced this situation myself, a number of years ago, so I know at first hand how dispiriting it can be. If it sounds insensitive to talk about ‘motivation’ in this context, maybe it would be better to think of this scenario in terms of ‘support’.

There is no danger, because the worst has already happened. And the opportunity has shrunk to making the best of the remaining time at work, helping people to find opportunities elsewhere and ensuring that everyone can walk out the door on the final day with their heads held high.

Personal satisfaction

If this is your last project, you could either take the attitude that ‘it doesn’t matter’ or that ‘if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well’, whatever the circumstances. Encourage people to take the latter view, and focus on their work as a daily consolation or at least a distraction from the bigger picture. It could make a big difference to everyone’s quality of life during those final days.

Personal rewards

You may no longer be able to offer rewards in this job, but you can help them in their quest for the next position – with advice, suggestions, contacts and references.

Social interaction: support

And encouragement are critical here. Look for ways to provide this for others, and to prompt them to support and encourage each other. A potential silver lining in a situation like this is that people no longer feel the pressure to ‘act professional’ and are more relaxed and honest, simply appreciating each others’ company.

Public recognition

Professional pride goes a long way. As we’ve seen, one of the most formatted aspects of losing your job is the loss of status and sense of making a contribution. Thanking people and recognising their contribution at a time like this can make a big difference to their self-esteem. It references and testimonials are an obvious way of doing this, but to many people private words of appreciation will be at least as valuable.


This has been a long article for a blog post, and even so I’ve just skimmed the surface of a big problem that has no easy solutions. Nothing works all the time, so I hope you’ll take my suggestions, build on them and adapt them to suit your needs.

But I hope I’ve done enough to remind you that money and authority of the most powerful motivators available to you as a manager or leader – and to prompt you to think creatively about ways to maintain energy and enthusiasm in yourself as well as your team during tough times.

Over to You

Did you find this article helpful? If you so, which parts resonated most strongly for you?

What advice and suggestions would you add to it?

Feel free to share any of your own experiences of motivating yourself and/or others during difficult times.

Would you like your team to be more motivated and creative?

And if you’d like some help motivating your team to produce stellar work, ask me about running my popular motivation training workshop How to Motivate Creative People (Including Yourself) for your organisation.


  1. Very well written and thought out. Something I’ll need to read several times this year to keep all of your recommended metrics top of mind.

    I took a similar, but different stab at this topic at the end of last year (See http://andromeda-30.blogspot.com/2008/12/resolution-for-2009-lose-your-job.html)

    Thanks for taking the time to write and publish a very solid piece of thinking.

    Jim Belfiore’s last blog post..Reading List – I

  2. Excellent work.

  3. Thanks guys.

    Jim — that’s an awesome article.

    Anyone else — if you’re reading this, you should read Jim’s piece: http://andromeda-30.blogspot.com/2008/12/resolution-for-2009-lose-your-job.html

  4. Thanks for this in-depth article as well as your e-book. I’ve been meaning to extend my thanks for the insight I gained from perusing it a few months ago.

    Matt Kreiling’s last blog post..25 amazing job-hunting tips from What Color is Your Parachute?

  5. Excellent article Mark. Very timely also and much needed in many industries. I can only imagine what companies might be able to accomplish if they realised truly what motivated their staff. A recent Fortune magazine article on the top 100 places to work( in the US) included an online store that needless to say did not have high paid workers. The staff though had freedom of judgement to accept returns, exchanges etc to make the customer happy as well as reward other employees for a job well done with out checking with 12 people. The key for any company is hiring the right people and then helping them channel their talent.

  6. Thanks Rosanne:

    I can only imagine what companies might be able to accomplish if they realised truly what motivated their staff.

    Me too!

  7. adewolu ak says:

    Thank you so much for the good idea

  8. I really enjoyed reading this article and agree that public employee recognition is key to improving motivation and productivity. To read my related article, Employee Recognition is a Powerful tool for Battling Recessionary Disengagement, please visit: http://www.awardsnetwork.com/blog/2009/03/employee-recognition-is-a-powe.html.

  9. Amy – thanks, interesting article.


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