How do you keep your people motivated in high pressure?

Written by
Alex Swarbrick

15 Sep 2016

15 Sep 2016 • by Alex Swarbrick

There is an Arabian camel anecdote… The owner loaded his camel with as much straw as possible, until the beast was staggering under the load. Adding one last wisp of straw proved too much, and the animal collapsed with a broken back, leaving the owner with no way to deliver his goods to market. 

It could be parable for public sector cuts today. Only it’s likely there’s more straw to come, and the camel, though teetering a bit, is still very much up on its legs. 

While the war of words and statistics continues, the impact on service users and providers of ongoing cuts goes without question. The Local Government Association (LGA) acknowledges that Greg Clark (Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government) has listened to some of their concerns, and allowing a number of councils to raise council tax will help, But LGA Chairman, Lord Porter, has stressed that the consequences of the £4.1 billion funding cut over this Spending Review period ‘should not be underestimated’. "Even if councils stopped filling in potholes, maintaining parks, closed all children's centres, libraries, museums, leisure centres and turned off every street light they will not have saved enough money to plug the financial black hole they face by 2020.” 

So how does the camel bear up under that much straw?

Challenging, changing and uncertain

The Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA) recently warned “From an HR perspective, the real challenge today is … about what we can do to make sure to attract, retain and motivate people the people we need to sustain those services”. 

PPMA continued: ‘it is the challenge of engaging our people that will endure and will define the success of any future change”. And that’s a leadership challenge. “Leaders who fail to acknowledge that will find that it is not the cuts that are their undoing, it is the internal bleeding that may prove fatal”.  

So how do you keep your camel strong despite the load getting continually heavier? Put another way, how do public sector leaders and HR address the morale, engagement and retention challenge despite budget cuts, job cuts and pay freezes?

Part of the answer is resilience. But before you switch off, I’m not advocating toughening up, or offering condescending advice like that given to NHS staff to eat healthier, exercise more and take breaks. 

The value of personal resilience has received much attention over recent years, and Roffey Park has undertaken its own research on the topic. But there’s also growing evidence for the place of team resilience, especially for teams like those across the public sector facing unprecedented pressures. 

So what kind of team climate can leaders and HR promote to support team resilience?

Roffey Park’s studies on team resilience offer some pointers...

The enabling leader

There are specific actions leaders can take which will contribute to a team maintaining its resilience, including:

•    Setting clear direction for the team
•    Developing the team’s capacity to manage their own problem-solving processes
•    Being supportive and empowering team members

But at the core what’s required is a culture of psychological safety. 

This means safety for interpersonal risk-taking; permission to try new ideas, express alternative views, challenge the status quo and cherished practices, without fear of punishment. 

Promote mastery and autonomy

Just as research has shown the importance of mastery and autonomy for individual engagement and performance    the same holds for teams. When individuals and teams face fragmented and standardised tasks (e.g. implementing predetermined ‘packages of care’) with limited scope for autonomous decision making it has been shown to inhibit informal learning, and sabotage engagement. In contrast, where leaders cultivate a climate of team empowerment, there’s a higher tendency for people to take collective responsibility for planning, executing, and organizing tasks, making high-level financial decisions, and introducing work process improvements.

Encourage exploratory learning 

Exploratory learning develops new capabilities. It’s learning that facilitates a team discovering, experimenting, developing new ideas and task-related capabilities. 

And it’s a social process, driven by interpersonal perceptions, requiring high degrees of trust, and confidence to improvise and innovate. 

Replace organisational structures that inhibit teamwork

Structures that reward the individual over the team are detrimental to team resilience. They inevitably lead team members to focus on individual goals rather than team goals, especially when both are at odds. 

The final straw?

Though the camel’s back is not yet broken, the final straw can’t seem far off. And while HR can’t reverse the funding cuts, the evidence suggests that nurturing team resilience, and encouraging leaders who promote autonomy, innovation, trust and collaboration might just help retain the engagement and sustain the morale of those on whom public service delivery depends.



(Lord Porter, Chairman of the Local Government Association, 25th November 2015
Public Service People Managers’ Association; ‘New cuts present a challenge but internal bleeding could prove fatal’ 
Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us. Daniel H. Pink Canongate Books, 2010 
SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. David Rock (2008)