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Enhancing Workforce Motivation During An Economic Downturn

by Dr. Teri J. Traaen

Over a half million Americans have lost their jobs in the last nine months, many in Arizona. Among these, local government employees in our state have been and will continue to be hard hit. Many will lose their jobs. Even those whose positions are maintained may face furlough days, shared assignments, increased workloads, and grieving the loss of colleagues.

What action plan has your organization designed to restore a stable culture for the remaining members of your workforce? Has your organization confirmed to its workforce that there will continue to be an emphasis on supporting and sustaining the needs of all employees on the payroll? 

Sustaining employee motivation at this time requires these four key actions by all members of your city or town’s leadership team.

1.      Acknowledge that the enhanced contributions of the current workforce are extraordinary and must continue to be extraordinary in order to make it through this chaotic time. Owning the uncertainty for our public sector organizations is crucial.  In the words of one Arizona city manager, some of the current pressures were so unique that “…we will be collectively making it up as we move through each crises…because there is no guaranteed template for some decisions at this point…it will be our best collective decision(s).” Owning the uncertainty immediately reduced the pressure point felt for that leadership team. Subordinate staff was affirmed by the honest reality that there were few failsafe answers to never before seen dilemmas.

2.      Demonstrate overt appreciation for daily employee commitment in the face of incredible stress and untenable demands. Sustained public acknowledgement at every turn is crucial, as well as an expectation that acknowledgement must become the norm from peer to peer. This approach embraces the power of each person left on the payroll to contribute to the overall culture of the organization. Creating a culture of appreciation happens one leader at a time. Leaders are alive and well at all organizational levels.  Let the leaders lead. And don’t assume they all live at the top of the organizational chart.

3.      Honor your organization’s performance management system with feedback and empowerment as direct and immediate rewards for initiative, self-study and strong forbearance especially when workloads are changing daily. Generations X and Y seek this type of remuneration. Don’t insist they wait. Empower them as they demonstrate the legitimate capability to shoulder enhanced responsibility.

4.      Accept the ethical responsibility for defining and eliminating the barriers to high employee motivation inside your public organization. These barriers could be manifest in systems, climate or struggling talent. If mistakes in judgment have allowed dysfunctions to exist in any or all of these areas, you must own it, address it and move on with compassion and forward thinking strategies. No one wants to continue bailing water if the lifeboat is destined to sink anyway. Seek feedback that broadens your thinking. Acknowledge that your active listening skills may be mired by political realities or individual agendas that are not healthy for anyone, much less a public service environment

This is an extraordinary time to redesign the internal climate and the service systems that together sustain your organization. Honor your organization’s best legacies and design the future, one employee at a time.

Dr. Teri J. Traaen is the CEO of Traaen & Associates, LLC. The firm is a full service human resource management company based in Phoenix, Arizona. She has served for over thirty years in Arizona’s public sector and is currently also a registered lobbyist at the Arizona State Legislature. For more information, please visit

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