Thursday, December 15, 2016

Employee Motivation and the Holiday Season

Guest post by Mackenzie Kyle: 

Ah, the holiday season.  A time to be nice to your fellow humans, a time to reflect on the accomplishments of the past year, and to look forward to the excitement that the New Year brings.  Or, from a more Scrooge-like perspective, a time when team members slack off, the company throws expensive parties where certain people drink too much and do things everyone wants to forget, team members gather to exchange awkward Secret Santa gifts that no one wants, and very little productive activity takes place.

Love it or hate it, it’s not a season we can afford to ignore.  Extending from American Thanksgiving until the hangover subsides around January 3, we’re talking about a little more than 6 weeks or a little more than 10% of the working year.  Not only is it a lot of time, it comes with certain expectations about being an occasion for organizations to show appreciation to their people.  The reaction of many organizations is to follow the traditional checklist of office parties, gift giving, and expecting that productivity will be low, all the while resenting the process and expense, and anxiously awaiting the arrival of the New Year.

But does it have to be that way?  As with most things in life, the answer is: of course not.  But also as with most things in life, taking a step back to develop a broader perspective on the situation is required; no improvement is possible without change, and positive change is rarely accomplished without understanding the bigger picture.  And in the case of the holidays, a missing part of that bigger picture is frequently an understanding of what team members actually want.  Traditional ‘rewards’ such as office parties are often viewed as obligations (and therefore not very motivating) by staff, not just by management.

To put some perspective on motivation during the holidays, think about these 4 things:

1. The common perception of the December holiday period is that it is a time to rest, recharge, and to plan for the upcoming year.  Although this may not apply to your entire team, many great team members work hard throughout the year with the expectation that they will get a bit of downtime during the holiday period.  Any attempt to take that away by expecting productivity to be maintained at the level you might see in March or October, is unlikely to be met, and is likely to create resentment among the team.  So be reasonable in setting expectations, which means accepting that while productivity may be lower, this is a healthy part of the work cycle.

2. Don’t assume you know how the team wants to mark the occasion.  Particularly in large offices, parties with spouses that total several hundred attendees mean that there is little time for the team to connect, lots of time for awkward socializing with people you only meet once a year and whose names you can’t remember, and ultimately an experience that is more punishing than rewarding.  Throw in the opportunity for people to do inappropriate things when nerves combine with alcohol, and you have a recipe that you don’t want to make into an actual dish.

Instead of assuming, talk to your team about how they would like to celebrate, and be prepared to go against tradition.  Some groups like to take every Friday in December to go for drinks after work.  Some teams want to play paintball.  And yes, some teams will want to do a more traditional holiday party.  There is no right or wrong here; only right or wrong for your team.  And the only way to know is to engage the team in the discussion.

3. Set clear expectations for behaviour and productivity during the holidays.  Nothing is worse than pretending it’s business as usual if in fact times are slower, and people have to make an effort to appear busy.  Instead, engage the team in planning in the November time frame, work with them to set some quantifiable goals for what needs to be accomplished over the holidays, goals that reflect a realistic level of effort, and talk with each team member about what that means they’ll be doing during that time frame.  Than manage the group to those expectations.  Accomplishing these realistic goals becomes a motivator for the team, and leads to a sense of satisfaction, rather than disappointment at what didn’t happen.

4. Now is NOT the time to tolerate behaviour that wouldn’t normally be acceptable.  There is never a time for that, and we can’t make an exception during the holidays without creating issues.  Although productivity expectations may be lower during this period, failing to deliver on what was agreed to is never acceptable. Similarly, allowing people (often with the help of alcohol) to start acting like your gropey Uncle Greg gets at weddings should not be tolerated.  Hold your team to the same standard of behaviour and respect as the rest of the year.

Remember: keeping a team engaged and motivated is a long-term process, not something to think about once a year.  In the same way we shouldn’t wait for the holidays to treat our fellow human beings with respect and kindness, we can’t think about our motivation and engagement strategy as existing only in a particular time frame.  Although the elements may be different depending on the circumstances the calendar brings, it needs to be a coherent strategy that is implemented throughout the year. 

Mackenzie Kyle is the Regional Managing Partner for MNP, a national Consulting and Accounting firm and the author of The Performance Principle: A Practical Guide to Understanding Motivation in the Modern Workplace.

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