When the going gets tough, the tough get going. So how do you make sure they stay? Sharon Crabtree looks at the problems common to underperformers and how to tackle them to manage and motivate staff

Illustration about staff motivation

Motivate staff

Managing people is both a skill and an art. People are unpredictable - we have feelings and emotions, and we are motivated by different things.

Health reforms and pressure to improve health outcomes for patients while working within tight budgets make keeping our staff motivated while delivering great performance an even greater challenge.

So what does good management look like in times of change?

‘People tend to not leave their organisation; when they move on, they leave their manager’

We know from research on engagement that people tend to not leave their organisation; when they move on, they leave their manager.

Bad management can cause the NHS to lose good people, performance and morale to go down, and sickness levels to go up.

There may not be money in the pot to offer financial incentives - and that might not be the right message anyway - so managers need to be creative in the way they engage their people.

In this article, some of the common symptoms of stressed and underperforming teams are discussed. Some cures are suggested for each of these and how to re-engage staff.

Sometimes the basics and principles of managing staff are overlooked so this article refocuses on some practical advice on good management.

Symptom: An unsettled team

Your team has been unsettled since a restructure was announced. Rumours of new ways of working are rife. People do not know what is expected of them.

Sometimes blank faces stare back at you in team meetings. Behaviour varies from 100 questions a minute to dumbfounded silence, and sometimes your team simply do not seem engaged no matter what you do.

You get the impression that people are talking and coming to some inaccurate conclusions.

Cure: Create clarity

Create clarity immediately. You need to defuse the situation before it becomes a lethal cocktail.

People want to understand their new roles and how they fit into the bigger picture.

The manager needs to take urgent action. They should hold an open team meeting explaining what is happening and why, warts and all.

‘The manager must explain what is happening and why, warts of all’

This should be followed up with individual meetings, one on one with the manager for everyone in the team to air their views and concerns, and allow both parties to get clarity on the new roles, perceived difficulties and any other concerns about what people think or feel.

Fundamental to treating this symptom is the creation of clarity. Without this, all other interventions will be superficial.

This cure is most effective when people understand the bigger picture and their role and contribution within it. If this detailed clarity of the role does not exist at the time of announcing the restructure, people just need to understand that as soon as it does, it will be shared and that no bad news is being held back.

Quick wins to boost morale

  • Breakfast meetings with food, cakes on Fridays, birthday celebrations etc.
  • A weekly newsletter focused on “what we’ve achieved this week”.
  • A shift in attitudes so that energy, fun and laughing are the norm.
  • Employee recognition awards given to highlight specific instances of people doing great work.
  • Sorting out immediate work needs for example, streamlining administrative processes that make life difficult.
  • Look at the work environment - is it conducive to good work? Ask people what they need.

Symptom: A demotivated team member

You are working hard to create clarity but some of your team are clearly demotivated.

You notice a variety of behaviours ranging from lack of interest, long lunch breaks, unhelpful, uncooperative behaviour and silly mistakes are being made causing an unpleasant and unproductive environment.

You are finding it hard to get around your team members and to give them the time, attention and care needed - you have a day job too after all.

Cure: Define roles and career paths

Managing this restructure has to be a priority within your day job.

A common cause of employee unease during structural change is the lack of clear career progression.

You have a job on your hands - as the manager you must define the roles and think flexibly about career paths. Look at the skills and talents of each of your people. Steer them to the roles they will be most suited for. But do this fairly and equitably.

‘Help them feel connected, valued and motivated - they are vital to getting to job done well’

Find out from each individual what interests them about their new roles, and how they feel they can contribute.

Have challenging discussions about how realistically these jobs can be delivered, whether resources need to be moved around and whether additional training and support is needed.

Be honest about whether capability can be developed within the team, or if new people will need to come on board.

Move people around to meet the organisational needs, but help them to feel connected, valued and motivated - they are vital to getting the job done well.

Symptom: You have moved people around

They feel safe knowing what their job is and what good looks like. They can see a future with you.

But some members of your team are much busier than others. There is still work to do.

Your staff are clear on their roles but are still not operating as a team. Roles are siloed to specific responsibilities.

Cure: Share the load

Once you have created an effective structure, you may need to recruit some new roles.

Make sure that the key accountabilities are clear and do not over promise.

You now have the opportunity to be flexible in how you allocate work.

‘Creating a sense of belonging means people are more likely to see new work as an opportunity to develop’

It is motivating for people to have a combination of work that needs to be done alongside specific areas of interest - with the important proviso that some work is the sort nobody wants to do. So it needs to be shared out fairly, working towards creating a greater spirit of cooperativeness within the team.

Creating this sense of belonging means people are more likely to see new work as an opportunity to develop their talents and appreciate the opportunity to work with different people within the team.

The hard work does pay off

Implementing structural change is hard and stressful work. Do not forget to celebrate and reward success.

Other managers will be suffering from the same stress, and that is why it is really important to share your achievements more widely. Talk about what you have done and the wins you have started to have.

This process feels really hard because there is no prescribed formula to dealing with change successfully.

‘When staff are happy, motivated and rewarded patients will notice’

However, research shows that regardless of the situation a team is facing - creating a new team, merging with another team, restructuring a team etc - they all require some core conditions in order to function effectively.

In simple terms, a manager cannot go wrong if they:

  • create clarity in terms of the big picture and how individuals fit into this;
  • make sure people understand what good looks like and the focus is on continuous improvement;
  • provide regular feedback and recognition;
  • eliminate unnecessary processes and encourage innovation and new ideas;
  • help people to feel responsible and accountable for their jobs; and
  • engender a climate of cooperativeness, pride and trust within the team.

When people enjoy what they are doing, they will create a more productive environment.

And when people are happy, motivated and rewarded - patients will notice too. We are only human, after all.

Sharon Crabtree is associate director at Hay Group