When your business is facing declining sales, a potential buy-out, or even certain closure, how do you manage people who are likely to be highly concerned about their future? Can you keep your team’s motivation and productivity up? The short answer is yes, even when it’s clear that a company is in trouble, there are ways to help team members stay focused, deliver results, and weather the storm.


Kim Cameron author of Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance, has studied organisations that have downsized or closed and he says that, instead of abandoning best common practices, the most skilled leaders reinforce them. “Good management is good management. Treating people well, helping them flourish, and unlocking potential are all good practices regardless of the environmental circumstances,” he says, and this has been my own personal experience of being involved in a number of business restructures too.


Of course it is not easy to keep people positive, motivated and working hard when they know the business may not be around, but it’s not impossible either. Here are some principles that Cameron recommends you follow when your organisation starts to feel like a sinking ship.


Give your team or organisation a larger purpose


To keep people focused, give them something to work toward.   It’s important to try and identify a profound purpose that is more important than an individual benefit.  People want to believe their work matters in any situation. This can be tough when the company’s success is no longer the goal but try to select something that employees value personally.  For example, when we had to close the Ladybird Books printing facility, we made it clear to our managers and staff that while it was tough for us all personally, our customers still needed our books delivered to their stores on time, and children still wanted to read them.  In this way we communicated that although in the long term the business needed to print its books elsewhere, in the short term their work still had vital meaning.


Provide reasonable incentives

Find ways to reward good work. After all, if the company is failing and employees are going to collect their pay anyway, why wouldn’t they spend their last three months on Facebook?

It is therefore important to make it clear what they will get if they do their best in this trying time. Will they learn a skill that will help them find their next job? Will the acquiring company be keeping some staff? How will the experience help them grow professionally? This cannot be faked either, it must be a truthful explanation of why they should help you to get the job done.


At Ladybird Books, we knew that while some jobs were being retained and moved to a new site the majority were not.  We therefore spent a great deal of effort supporting people to learn new skills and find new jobs.


Show people they matter as individuals

Don’t just offer the same things to everyone, however. People want to still be seen as individuals. Tailor your message and the incentives to specific team members. Whenever possible, give them personal attention and care. When news of the crisis hits, meet with your employees one-on-one. Find out what matters most to them and do your best to meet those needs.  At Ladybird we needed the majority of people to stay on until the last day, which potentially precluded people from starting a new job as soon as they found one.  We therefore tried to be as flexible as we could.  As people found new employment we discussed the issue with them and their new employer to find solutions that would ensure that we could fulfil our customers’ needs but without prejudicing our employees’ chances of getting a new job.


Be honest and authentic

Being transparent is crucial in these circumstances.  It is vital to be as honest as you possibly can, and you shouldn’t try to protect people from the truth or ignore what’s happening.  Give people as much information about what might happen in the future as you can.  For example at Ladybird we provided all employees with a detailed timetable of what was planned to happen when, including dates when individuals would leave the business.


Don’t ignore emotions

People are going to be upset, afraid, and angry. Don’t pretend that these feelings don’t exist. Instead, make room for them.  Ignoring or dismissing emotions only drives them underground and makes them more deeply felt.   When we announced the planned closure of the Ladybird factory we immediately gave all employees the rest of the day off work.  Interestingly, most of the staff didn’t go home straight away but stayed and discussed what it meant for them amongst themselves.  This allowed them to say things and express feelings that they might not have wanted to do in front of their boss.


We ensured we were available and encouraged people to talk to us whenever they wanted to.  We also provided specialised outplacement counsellors to help people deal with what was going on too.


Clearly it is a tough job to keep your team’s motivation and productivity up when the future looks bleak, but it is possible.  The research conducted by Kim Cameron as well as my own personal experience shows that there are ways to help team members stay focused, deliver results, and weather the storm.