Engaging Employees During a Crisis

Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton

If you consider a few of your favorite leaders from history—whether Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, Jr.—they all shared one thing in common: They were forged during the worst of times.


What exactly do great leaders do differently than average or poor leaders during crises?


In writing our book “All In” on high-performance corporate cultures, we discovered what the most successful companies did to survive and thrive during the last economic downturn—from 2008 to 2010. From an eight-million-person global database collected during those years from 700 companies, our researchers identified 25 companies with 303,000 employees that enjoyed the highest performance business results—organizations that outperformed their competitors in financial measures by as much as two and three times.


This global high-performance list included a thin slice of companies from around the world and in every industry: health care, financial services, manufacturing, technology, services, transportation, and so on. The task in the study was to determine what levers managers of these organizations pulled to bring about dramatically better financial results than their peers during abysmal market conditions.


What follows are just a few ideas we found that could help team members feel a little more engaged and a little more focused during this current crisis.


Define your burning platform. In those workplaces that thrived during the last recession, leaders spent considerable time defining their team or organizational mission with great clarity and instilling a positive sense of urgency about the team living up to its goals. They also made sure each employee could understand the value of his/her contribution to that larger mission. 


Create a customer focus. Especially during tough times, we learned managers must help employees focus like lasers on customers, and mandate a vigorous pro-customer orientation. This not only leads to exceptionally high client satisfaction and loyalty, but it provides moment-to-moment direction for all employees in making the right decisions and taking the initiative to solve issues.


Share everything. The best cultures we studied were places of truth, constant communication, and marked transparency. Managers in these cultures shared even the hard truths with their employees as soon as they could, and they encouraged debate of new ideas even if it rattled harmony. They left the “pillows” at home; in other words, they didn’t soften the blows. When employees know that their managers will be truthful and direct, it builds a culture of trust and openness.


Root for each other. We found higher levels of gratitude in cultures that maintained levels of customer service, operational excellence, and ownership. In these best workplaces, teammates had much higher levels of goodwill and spent much more time thanking each other peer-to-peer for those behaviors they valued. The seemingly warm and fuzzy skill of gratitude created tangible esprit de corps and a single-mindedness about living the right behaviors.


Establish clear accountability. As a capstone to this process, we found managers must learn how to hold employees accountable in tough times—and yet they must turn this idea from a negative into a positive. Employees want to be held accountable for hitting their goals, but they must be given the responsibility and tools to ensure their success, and then rewarded when they see a goal through to completion.

Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton are the New York Times bestselling authors of Leading with Gratitude, The Carrot Principle and All In. They own the global training company The Culture Works and work with organizations around the world to address employee engagement issues. 

Adrian Gostick: New York Times Bestselling Author and Global Expert on Corporate Culture, Leadership, and Engagement

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