Employee Motivation: The Effect of the Economy

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter delivered his “Crisis of Confidence” speech, commonly referred to as his “Malaise Speech” although he never actually used that word. To a country reeling from stagflation and an oil crisis, it was an additional blow to our collective psyche. We felt poor, and other countries were getting ahead of us. Interestingly, the terminology he used could apply every bit as much today.

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning….

Whether we like it or not, owning things and consuming things are still the measurements by which we determine success today. Advertisers fight for every square inch of space to promote consumption. Five years ago, an article in the New York Times estimated that the average city dweller saw 5,000 ads daily. The number certainly hasn’t declined since.

The election has inundated us with claims that the middle class is worse off than it was twenty years ago. How is “worse off” defined as a measurement? For most of the world, “rich” could be defined as having indoor plumbing, 24 hour electricity and a motor bike. In America, “poor” can mean having only one television, one car, and an inability to eat at nice restaurants.

I caught the Sean Connery 1993 movie “Rising Sun” on one of my 400+ advertising-supported television stations last week. It was an amusing journey into our last period of general fear about our whole country being bought outright, although that time it was by Japan just before their financial crash. This time it is China. Our 19th century paranoia about the “Yellow Peril” lives on. The media tells us we are poor again, and that others are getting ahead of us.

How can we, as business owners, motivate employees who see no light at the end of the tunnel? Statistically, about one in five of them owe more on their houses than they can sell them for. In the worst hit states like California (one in three), Florida (almost half) and Nevada (two-thirds) many employees have simply stopped paying their mortgages. They have decided that their homes are a lost cause, and they would rather use wages for more immediate rewards.

A couple of years ago, when gasoline spiked to $4.00 a gallon, many employers offered assistance to employees who traveled distances to their jobs. Last month most of the country came near those prices again, but I didn’t hear a word from our clients about fuel assistance. On the whole, our employees are certainly no better off than they were, but we’ve made so many other cuts in our businesses that we now expect them just to tough it out. We assume that they understand why things are tight.

Money by itself is an indifferent motivator. No rational employee works harder in the mere quest for a bigger bank balance. It is what he or she can purchase from among the minute-to-minute inundation of advertising offerings that makes money desirable.

The primary reason people like their job is the social culture of the workplace. They spend more waking hours talking to coworkers than to their families (especially if you don’t let them watch TV on the job). They form friendships, and in a small company they know a lot about each other’s children and marriages.

As a businessman, you can’t buck the economy or two billion dollars worth of political advertising. You don’t have the ability to buy down the principle on your employees’ homes, or give them new cars. If you can afford to pay them a bit better than market rates, that’s great, but it probably isn’t going to change their impression of the world around them.

What you can do is make their workplace a haven from the drumbeat of doom that is surrounding them outside. As Mr. Carter said; owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. When you can’t provide a job that fulfills all your employees’ material aspirations, it had better be addressing their need to do something worthwhile.

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