23 Jan How to Motivate Your Team During Crunch Time
How to Motivate Your Team During Crunch Time
How do employers keep an eye on employee stress levels while still motivating employees during crunch time? Read this blog for tips on keeping teams motivated during busy, stressful times.
There are times when work ramps up and you need all hands on deck. Ideally, you want people to jump into the work excited and enthusiastic rather than dreading what’s coming. So, what can you do to rally the troops when the team’s workload is particularly heavy? How do you talk about the project or time period so that people don’t feel daunted? And, how do you keep an eye on stress levels while still motivating people to get through the crunch?
What the Experts Say
Whether it’s a seasonal crunch time or a particularly demanding project with a tight deadline, it can be hard to keep people focused and motivated when they’re overloaded. The fact is, “most people already have a lot on their plate,” says Lisa Lai, a business advisor and coach. And so when you ask your team for more, “it can leave people feeling overwhelmed and inadequate.” On top of this, as the pace of work increases and our always-on technology serves as a tether to the office, intense periods are becoming more prevalent, says Ethan Bernstein, a professor of leadership and organizational behavior at Harvard Business School. “There is a greater quantity of crunch times and more of the work that we get done happens during a crunch,” he says. This has critical implications for you, the boss. By “focusing your attention on your employees” and projecting a calm, confident presence, you can make these times easier for the people on your team, Bernstein says. Here’s how.
Project positive energy
For starters, says Lai, “check your own emotional energy as a manager.” If you’re feeling beleaguered, worried, anxious, or frustrated about a project “there’s no way you can show up in front of your team” and be a confident guiding force. To lead, you need to be “engaged, motivated” and “emotionally bought in.” Start by “reflecting on why the work matters.” Figure out “why this project is relevant and who benefits from it,” she says. Remember, too, that crunch times can be useful learning opportunities. Yes, critical, time-sensitive projects are often tense, but “you want peaks and valleys,” says Bernstein. “Peaks — when everyone is engaged and motivated at the same time — are good” for team morale and drive. But they should not be the status quo. “There is a value to intermittency,” he says. If your team is in a constant crunch, employees “are not operating at an [optimal] level of productivity and effectiveness.”
Once you’ve personally connected to the work and its purpose, “convey that message to your team,” says Lai. “Don’t just say, ‘Here are the deliverables. Here’s the deadline.’” Instead, “develop the story” around why the project has meaning and what the ultimate goal is. “Define what success looks like.” Be upfront with your team and acknowledge the “burden and sacrifices” involved, such as late nights and weekends at the office. Express empathy and be vulnerable, adds Lai. “Say: ‘This is going to be hard. I am feeling it, too.’” Convey solidarity in the spirit of, “we are in this together,” says Bernstein. “We have to grind this out as one team.” And try not to dwell on the negatives. Tell your reports that, “there are going to be parts of this that are going to be fun, too.” Maintaining team camaraderie is a priority. That way, “it doesn’t have to hurt so much.”
Think about milestones
Next, consider breaking up the work into manageable chunks so that the overall deliverable isn’t so intimidating. Lai recommends, “creating meaningful arcs” to the project based on the work that matters most. Setting short-term targets for each phase directs the team’s focus, creates accountability, and helps to bring them closer to the end goal. “Say: ‘We will take a breath after each one. We will evaluate and make sure we’re on the right track. If we need to change course, we will do that.’” Milestones ought to help the team feel good about the incremental progress it’s making, so make sure you’re instituting them for the right reasons. “Don’t have all these mini crunches for the purpose of micromanaging,” says Bernstein. It’s also important to consider how multiple deadlines may affect the pace of your team’s work. If you give a team a defined amount of time to do a task, research shows that the team will work at a different speed before and after the midpoint. “The rubber meets the road” the closer a deadline looms, Bernstein says.
Allow the team to structure their workdays in ways that maximize their productivity. Crunch times are not the time for politics around face time or HR rules about working from home to get in the way,” Lai says. Let your employees play a role in defining the team and how they work together. “If they have a voice, they are more likely to lean into the work,” she says. “You want people to participate and feel involved in the process.” While they should be in charge, do what you can to clear the way for them. For example, says Bernstein, it’s helpful to clear the decks so employees can concentrate on the task at hand. You have the power to “take away distractions” and “make the crunch time relieving in some respects,” he says.
Be judicious with incentives
Rewards and incentives can be a key motivational tool. Lai suggests deploying them throughout the projected timeline, not just when it ends. “You need moments of celebration,” she says. “That’s how you create sustained engagement.” Think about ways to recognize your team’s hard work: a Friday afternoon off perhaps, or an all-office ice cream social. And yet, warns Bernstein, “extrinsic rewards have some downsides.” If, for instance, you tell your team that everyone gets the morning off after you reach a deadline, “you’re only incenting the completion of the work rather than the quality of it,” he says. Instead, he recommends “placing intrinsic rewards front and center.” Focus on how the project represents a “good developmental opportunity for team members,” and the reasons why “working closely together” will benefit the team in the long run.
Watch for red flags
You can often judge whether or not your direct report is anxious by the expression on their face or the way they talk. “You have an ability to read people, so use it,” says Bernstein. If you see that an employee is struggling, reach out. Don’t “keep plowing forward” at all costs, says Lai. “The biggest red flag is when people stop talking,” she says. “When your team goes quiet,” it’s an indication that employees “are feeling lost or overwhelmed.” Talk to your team. “Ask them: What’s going well and what is not going well? What do we need to pivot on? What roadblocks need to be removed?”
Be present and grateful
One final piece of advice: “be accessible,” says Bernstein. Lai concurs: “Even if you do all the other things right, if you disappear behind closed doors,” your leadership will be “an epic failure.” You need to be consistently available. Let your employees know you have their backs. “Walk the floor and talk to people. Ask: ‘Who needs help?’” Your colleagues “will value that you are present,” she adds. It goes without saying that you need to express gratitude for the sacrifices they’re making. Regularly say “thank you” and find small ways to show you appreciate what they’re putting in. And Lai adds: “it never hurts to bring donuts.”
Principles to Remember
- Check your own emotional energy. You can’t motivate your team if you’re not engaged and excited about the project.
- Break up the work into manageable chunks so that the overall deliverable isn’t so intimidating. Milestones can focus the team.
- Encourage your team members to structure their workdays in ways that maximize their productivity.
- Be dishonest or sugarcoat matters. Acknowledge to your team the burden and sacrifices involved.
- Ignore obvious problems. If you see that an employee is struggling, reach out. Ask: What roadblocks need to be removed?
- Disappear behind closed doors. You need to be accessible and visible to your team.
Case Study #1: Project enthusiasm and communicate why the work matters
Syed Irfan Ajmal, a digital marketing entrepreneur based in Pakistan, has had a lot of experience motivating teams during crunch times.
To “do it right,” he says, “you’ve got to know your team well. You have to know what excites them, what scares them, and what their deepest desires and biggest challenges are.”
In January 2013, Syed partnered with another entrepreneur — Yasir Hussain Sheikh — on a technology startup. The two of them assembled a small team of eight people to create and license a specialized spatial intelligence product.
The product, inspired by CNN’s “Magic Wall,” was to help TV hosts demonstrate the results of Pakistan’s elections using maps and data visualization on a multi-touch screen.
The pressure was intense — the elections were being held in May and so the team only had a few months to deliver. “We had an extremely short time period to work with,” says Syed. “If we failed to build and license the product by March 2013, all our work would have been futile.”
Syed and Yasir were worried about hitting the looming deadline, but they knew they needed to project positive energy to their team. Together, they reflected on what success would do for their startup and mean for Pakistan. They thought about their goals and their purpose. “What we were trying to accomplish had never been done in the country before,” recalls Syed.
When they communicated the significance of the product to their team, “everything changed for the better,” he says.
“My partner was very good at motivating the team by sharing his vision about what completing this project on time would mean for everyone,” he says. “Yasir’s passion was contagious, and did wonders for everyone’s energy and enthusiasm.”
Syed wasn’t bashful in laying out the sacrifices involved. “I didn’t use any scare tactics, but I told everyone that this project required us to work day and night,” he says. “I think the team appreciated my honesty.”
He and his business partner also tried to foster camaraderie and collaboration by dividing their small team into even smaller sub-teams, where each member’s skills complemented those of others. That way, each team member had a say in how the work would be accomplished. “Yasir and I were always available to provide instant and constructive feedback,” he says.
Ultimately, the team prevailed and was proud of their accomplishment. “We were successful and we witnessed our product being used on national TV.”
Case Study #2: Think about ways to be helpful to your team and say thank you
Carl Ryden, co-founder and CEO of PrecisionLender, an AI-powered software company for commercial banks, says that the most important thing to bear in mind when motivating staff during an intense period is that the “crunch has to be anomalous.”
“People can’t pedal as hard as they can all day, every day,” he says. “It has to be temporary. [Employees] need to trust that this isn’t the norm and that [they work] for an organization that respects work-life balance.”
Recently, his company — which is based in North Carolina, needed to launch the first release of its intelligent virtual assistant, Andi, within its application. “We had a deadline that we had to meet,” says Carl. As the deadline drew closer, it became clear that “there was still a lot of work that needed to get done and that many of our developers were going to have to work on the weekends to do it.”
Carl knew that the team was stressed — and he wanted to help in any way that he could. “I wanted to show solidarity but I also wanted to get out of their way and let them do their jobs,” he says.
Carl says that if he stayed at the office alongside his team, “it would have seemed like [he] was there in a supervisory role” in need of constant “status reports.” Instead, he decided to give his team autonomy. “I said, ‘I trust you to get this done. And I want to make sure you have everything you need. What can I take off your plates to let you focus your attention?”
“I didn’t want to make things worse.”
The team appreciated his vote of confidence. Once it was over — “the team got it done on time and it turned out to be a great success” — Carl made sure to express his gratitude. “I said thank you, individually and collectively, to the team,” he says. “I wanted to acknowledge their great work.”
SOURCE: Knight, R. (18 December 2019) “How to Motivate Your Team During Crunch Time” (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/12/how-to-motivate-your-team-during-crunch-time?ab=hero-subleft-3