Motivating Your Employees In Hard Times


Motivating our people can be challenging at the best of times but when market conditions are especially difficult then it can be even harder to keep people focused on doing the job to their best ability.

Understanding Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and applying it to modern times can actually help us to motivate our people when times are hard.

Basic Physical & Psychological Needs

The foundation of human needs is the need to survive.  If a person’s ability to put food on the table is in any doubt, this need will take priority over anything else.  The current economic climate creates uncertainty. Where a member of the household has lost their job or taken a reduction in income, this need to replace that lost income becomes their overriding concern.

In your employees, this may manifest itself as a loss of focus from a previously reliable or successful team member and a greater motivation towards money.  In a sales person this may be seen as beneficial until they start to appear desperate to customers or even reduce margins just to gain a sale.

As their manager your role is to support this person and be sympathetic to their situation. Where you or your company have the ability to provide additional financial help then this will be greatly appreciated. This will generally be rewarded through the person’s loyalty unless they have no choice but to seek a higher paid job.  Flexibility of working hours may also help if they have issues with childcare arrangements where they seek out additional sources of income.

Safety & Security Needs

Linked to the basic needs mentioned above, most people seek stability and security of employment. In difficult trading conditions evidenced by the public failure of top brand businesses, it doesn’t take much to shake people’s stability of employment.  People working in retail at the moment maybe watching the news with trepidation, hoping that their company is not the next to go into administration or announce redundancies.

In these circumstances, employees look for strong leadership from their employers. They want to see confidence and determination to encourage them to feel secure in their job.  They want to see what their leaders are doing to ensure that the business is financially viable and operating in the right markets and actively looking for new opportunities.

Managers need to reassure employees about the sustainability of the business. They also need to make employees more commercially aware and the importance of keeping control of costs in the business as well as seeking profitable sales.

Social Needs

This goes deeper than going out socially as a team every now and then. It is more basic than this. Once employees feel they can provide the basics for themselves and their families and are fairly secure in their job, people like to feel part of something. Being in a supportive team where they are valued for their contribution to the business is a great motivator. When times are hard and everybody is working hard for each other (as well as the business) then it actually encourages greater team work.

You may be familiar with occasions when there has been a particularly hard day or period and the team manages to get through it, there is such a spirit of achievement. In retail working during a ‘sale’ period can be quite challenging particularly in the larger chains. In one popular store they sometimes wear t-shirts saying, ’I survived the (store) sale!’

Ego Need

The idea of someone wanting to satisfy their ego can sometimes be seen as a negative. Actually, to be recognised for what you are doing is a common human need. In fact for many people it is their most powerful motivator. It is also a basic human desire to make progress. Not many people like the idea of standing still or worse going backwards.

Provided all the previous needs are met then all sorts of recognition are valid provided it is sincere. Giving people the opportunity to learn new things and develop new skills can also be powerful. In the current climate giving people the opportunity to make themselves more valuable as an employee is worth its weight in gold.


In common language this means people approaching their true potential. Sometimes when times are hard, people can feel trapped in their present position because they afraid of changing jobs. Some of the best managers we have worked with are those that take a genuine interest in the aspirations of those who work for them.

Managers who encourage the individuals in their team to achieve their goals will more likely have more loyal people. Some managers unfortunately take the opposite view and feel they will lose people as they help them get promotion or change direction. We believe it actually attracts good people who feel they can gain from working for such a supportive manager.

So, despite the fact that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has been around since the 1940’s it is still relevant today and can help to understand why people act the way they do. Start looking at your employees from this perspective and see if you can work out where they are on the hierarchy. Once you have done this think what you need to do as a manager to support this person and keep them motivated. If you need help with this please contact us and ask us about management coaching.

Many thanks

Mark Williams

Head of Training

MTD Training   | Image courtesy by Stuart Miles of FreeDigitalPhotos.Net

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Updated on: 11 February, 2013

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