QuestionThings are very tight right now. Our outlook is uncertain and people are afraid for their jobs. Under these circumstances I’d expect people to get more done, but somehow, we aren’t more productive than before. Any hints?

It’s funny, being a human being. You would think that when the pressure is on, we would flip into resourceful, productive mindsets and valiantly overcome whatever obstacles block the path to our goals. Alas, it doesn’t happen that way. When we feel scared and uncertain, our forebrain shuts down and our hindbrain screams, “Run!” That worked great when spotting the saber-tooth tiger grinning at us through the grass. But in the modern world, that’s often the opposite of what we need to do to survive.

Fear motivates immediacy

Creating urgency is a first step in mobilizing organizations. But an important truth about humans is that urgency easily slips into fear. Fear mobilizes, and it mobilizes away from the perceived danger. Which way is “away from?” Whichever direction someone is pointed when that hindbrain screams “Run!” Everyone around will also move quickly—in whatever direction they happen to be facing. Fear gets people moving now, but it won’t move them in the same direction.

Fear does more harm than just scatter effort; it produces stress. Under stress, creativity vanishes, problem-solving abilities diminish, and people stop learning. They react from impulse, they don’t think through consequences of their actions, and they become less able to spot patterns and interconnections. This is fine for a five-minute burst of jungle adrenaline, but it won’t lead to a workforce that can navigate a tricky economy.

Any workforce living in stress will have problems over the long term. When morale is bad for months at a time, people disengage. They stop thinking about taking the company to new heights and start groaning when the alarm clock goes off—and groans rarely bring out peak performance.

Leadership motivates coordinated action

Fear’s companion is, oddly, leadership. Fear motivates people strongly, but in random directions. Leadership aligns them in the same direction. Call it what you will: inspiration, vision, mission—setting direction gives people something to move towards. By sharing a vision, everyone in an organization can orient themselves around the same set of high-level goals.

Working towards a larger purpose also mobilizes people, but it mobilizes them in a way that unlocks their creativity, problem-solving, and resourceful mental states. When working towards a large goal they perceive as achievable but challenging, people create eustress, a positive stress that gives them the energy and resources to make progress on the goal.

It’s a big improvement when everyone is moving in the same direction, but one more piece is needed: coordination. The balance between good stress and bad stress is delicate. Once people agree on a goal and are psyched to go there, coordination becomes ever more important. If two groups become blocked by a lack of coordination, bad stress can re-emerge and begin shutting down morale again. So once people are mobilized, the ongoing challenge is making sure they’re supporting each other, and not getting in each other’s way.

Reconnect leadership at the top

The first step to getting the work force back into a powerful, productive mental state is to start with yourself. You’ve probably got the “Run!” response down cold. Now it’s time to reconnect with your “towards” vision. People take emotional cues from their leaders, and if you’ve been stressed about the economy, you’ll be radiating it throughout your organization, so get yourself and your leadership team into a powerful, positive place.

Leave the daily triggers that pull you back into stress. Turn on the voicemail, turn off the e-mail, smash the cell phone, and head off for a weekend in a mountain cabin. Get enough sleep, enough food, and enough physical relaxation so your brain starts working again. Reconnect to your vision. Write, daydream, and brainstorm where you want your group in five years, a year, six months, and three months. Factor in your personal goals as well so you really tap your own intrinsic motivation.

You’ll know you’ve done enough when you feel a strong pull towards your goals. Uncertainty about the economy may still be in the background, but once you’ve regained your equilibrium, you will also feel a strong sense of where you’re going.

Spread that feeling to the rest of your leadership team. Invite them for an off-site, and together, clarify the vision of where you’re headed until it’s at least as clear as perceptions about current problems. Take the time to make sure everyone understands the direction. Bring in their goals, wishes, and aspirations for the organization. While you work, watch their faces. Notice the energy level. When they start getting excited, you’ve tapped their motivation and gotten them back on a powerful path.

Back to the business, decrease stress

Once you return to daily business, you’ll have to decrease stress as you align people. Stress from specific causes (“My kids are sick.”) can be addressed on an ad hoc basis. Stress from vague sources like “the economy” is general anxiety. Often, you can help people by just letting people talk. Listen empathetically and don’t rush into solving or analyzing problems (for most of us type-As, this is much, much harder than it sounds). Feeling listened to can be enough to help someone regain equilibrium.

If the anxiety is about Things We Don’t Really Like to Talk About—like the fear of layoffs—talking can help defuse them. There’s no better way to nurture a fear than to let it remain the stuff of speculation. When left to their imaginations, people deal with uncertainty by imagining the worst and then reacting as if it had already happened. Truth is a great antidote for uncertainty. It is, after all, a form of certainty. Discuss what’s happening, even if all you can say is, “No one knows what will happen, but we’ll keep forging ahead toward our goals.”

Oh, yes. Keeping people healthy is also essential to soothing their nerves. Make sure people are sleeping enough. Sixteen-hour days are probably as productive as ten-hour days with enough sleep and an after-work life. Unless you run an assembly line, productivity is probably tied only loosely—if at all—to hours worked (but that’s another column).

Connect people to forward motivation

As you decrease stress, have the leadership team bring the sense of direction into all interactions. Remind people about the direction. Rally them. Excite them. But don’t overdo it; this isn’t about creating a huge one-time pep rally high. You’re setting a direction for the organization that you want to pervade decision making and keep people steady over the long term.

You build the strongest connections when decisions are made. Have your teams ask continually, “Will this decision move us further in the direction we wish to go?” Once everyone unifies around this question, coordination becomes possible and it will be much easier for people to move forward, which is what productivity is all about.

Your job becomes keeping your leadership team tied to the company vision, and helping them propagate the vision to their teams in turn. People are more productive when they know where they’re going and feel like they stand a chance of getting there. By reducing their stress and fear, addressing their uncertainty, and linking everyday activities to a future direction, people will be able to concentrate on producing results, rather than just running in circles from their anxiety’s imaginary monsters.

Stever Robbins is President of Leadership Decisionworks, a leadership consulting, speaking, and facilitation firm. His work is featured on and

Firing Up Organizations in Tough Times

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