If you play sports, or just follow them, you understand the importance of the mental side of the game. Winners are confident, focused, tough-minded. Losers may be less gifted athletically, but their toughest challenge is usually overcoming doubt. Yet when the weaker opponent is on mentally—or the stronger opponent is not—that's the recipe for an upset.
In the business world, we tend to underestimate the importance of attitude and focus. But you don't have to look far for evidence of the powerful influence of mindset on performance. Just crawl inside your own head. How much does confidence, focus, and attitude impact your work? Now multiply the effect by the number of employees in your firm.
That's why the issue of morale goes much deeper than how people feel. It affects how they perform. So here's the scenario facing many A/E firms these days: Morale is down due to a deadly pandemic, struggling economy, workplace disruption, societal upheaval, and future uncertainty. The good news is that after an initial drop in job satisfaction, productivity, and engagement, these measures are improving as workers adjust to the new normal.
Still, the situation remains fragile. Backlogs and billings are dropping, clients are slowing spending, reopening of the economy is not going smoothly in many states, many parents face difficulties balancing work and child care with scaled-back school schedules. Wise managers will be monitoring the emotional and mental state of their employees in the months ahead. They will also be taking steps to keep employee morale up in this suddenly upside down world. A few tips:
Don't embrace a victim mentality.
It's easy to shift blame to the pandemic or the economy, portraying
your firm as innocent bystanders in a malicious marketplace. But there
are always firms that thrive in difficult times. Are they merely
fortunate or did they earn their good fortune? The problem with blaming
outside forces is that it seemingly leaves people with little recourse.
Those firms are "riding out the storm" hoping that
"things turn around before too long."
A strong wind can topple a sailboat headed in the wrong direction or propel one to victory in a race. It's a matter of aligning yourself with opportunities and harnessing circumstances to your favor. Victims are in a dour mood these days; victors are busy trying to get ahead of the game.
Get everybody involved. Employees are more encouraged and confident when they feel they can make a meaningful contribution in tough times. It lends them some sense of control over the outcomes. One of the worst things for morale is when firm leaders retreat into their bunkers, hiding behind closed doors (in their homes these days!), limiting communication with staff, and making decisions that leave out but ultimately effect firm members. Strong leaders effectively engage their people in tackling the company's challenges, and the more people you can enlist, the better. It clearly boosts morale, not to mention the advantage of tapping into more problem solvers.
Develop and commit to a plan of action. Most A/E firms are by nature reactive. That may get you by in good times, but in our current circumstances you need a plan and disciplined action. Besides the inherent benefits of planning and action, it's good for morale as well. Employees want to know that the firm has charted a course through this storm. As noted above, engaging them in the process is even better. As things are fast changing, don't let your plan stagnate. Revisit it often and modify your course as necessary.
Speaking of mindset, let me encourage you to plan beyond merely weathering whatever challenges your firm is currently facing. There is a vast difference between firms that have what I call a "survival mindset" and those with a "success mindset." The former may lead you to develop a short-term corrective action plan, more defensive than offensive in tone. That does little to lift spirits. Whatever short-term corrective actions are needed should be done in the context of a longer-term vision for emerging from these times even stronger.
Balance honesty with optimism. Actually, to achieve a balance you need to go heavy on the optimism in tough times (that's why a success vision is so important). Perhaps my greatest failure as a manager was failing to realize this fact. I thought it important to be honest with staff about the difficulties we were facing. But I failed to offer enough hope and optimism to counter the bad news. My staff became discouraged and performance slumped when we could least afford it. Thankfully our downturn in business was relatively short-lived. This one probably isn't, and may go on much longer.
Beware of letting your staff get bogged down in the current reality; give them a hopeful vision of the future to carry them through. But don't whitewash the present situation or paint an overly optimistic view of the firm's prospects. That will undermine your credibility. Do your homework. Get the facts right. Outline a realistic plan. There are many opportunities, even in the current circumstances, to build competitive advantage.
Be generous with praise and appreciation. We tend to be stingy with this—not intentionally, but by distracted neglect. Now is a time to make it a priority. There is abundant research that points out how important this is, yet receiving recognition and feeling appreciated are typically among the lowest scores I see in employee surveys—and that's in the good times! Push everyone in supervisory roles to step up their praise for good work and hard effort among their staff. Establish or reinvigorate formal means for recognizing employees' accomplishments. These are simple, but powerful, steps for boosting morale and job satisfaction.
Keep communication flowing. Even in normal situations, communication is problematic for most A/E firms. Now with a dispersed workforce, with work and personal lives increasingly blended, it's vitally important to step up communication. I'm sensing that project teams are doing pretty well overall, with some reporting that there's even greater team communication via virtual meetings than there was when people were working at the office. But firm leaders are often less visible now, and they play an important role in setting the tone for this odd remote workplace. If you're a leader, make it a priority to regularly communicate with staff, using multiple channels to broaden your bandwidth. Visible leaders exert tremendous influence on the work environment, and especially so when employees are scattered.
So what's the mood among your employees and coworkers? Have you taken the time to find out? Among the various strategies you might be exploring to navigate your firm's way through this challenging period, don't ignore staff morale. It's the mental side of the game that may ultimately determine whether you win or lose in this hyper-competitive marketplace.