How to Develop a High Performing Workforce as the Economy Recovers from Recession

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Stephen J. Gill– is a guest contributor.
An Independent Consultant for Human Performance

He publishes a blog at:

Evidence indicates that most of the U.S. and other developed countries are starting to emerge from the worst economy since the Great Depression of the 30s. The likelihood that we will return to those conditions again in the near future depends on the financial and operational viability of companies, but also, to a great extent, on how well companies manage their employees. If executives don’t attend to the factors that determine a high performance workforce, their companies will not thrive and survive.

Some researchers estimate that as many as a third of employees will “jump ship” as soon as hiring takes off again. These employees are not content with their current situations and are just waiting for new opportunities to become available. Those who remain, feeling survivor-syndrome stress, will not be fully engaged in their work and will not perform at their best. Having lost much of their talent, with institutional wisdom walking out the door, and with a remaining workforce that lacks motivation, these companies will not be able to compete in their marketplaces.

Retaining top talent might be the single greatest challenge companies have in this recessionary economy. Research findings by The Conference Board make the case that organizations need to find a way to attract, grow, and keep knowledgeable, talented, innovative people who can position their companies for a turnaround. Nic Paton, writing for, says:

The difficulty, of course, is that managers will need to spend the next eight to 12 months walking a tightrope between continuing to curb and control costs while ensuring they don’t emerge blinking into the economic sunlight bereft of the top talent they need.

A “new normal” has emerged out of the recession. Companies want and expect high performance from individuals and teams. Employees want a workplace where they can perform at their best and be recognized for it.  Executives have to understand this change to effectively develop the kind of workforce that will help them be successful. It is this change in workforce expectations and culture, and what you can do about it, that I address here.

The “new normal” workforce has these characteristics:

  • Employees are heavily dependent on technology and automation. Computer-based tools (from desk-top to mobile devices) have made it possible for companies to decrease the number of employees while increasing the productiveness of each employee. These tools have also dramatically increased the quantity and quality of communication among team members and across departments, potentially breaking down the departmental silos that often occur in organizations.
  • Companies are constantly looking for ways to be more efficient. The recession forced them to examine and consider every opportunity to reduce costs and save money. Now, this has become a way of doing business. From the shop floor to the executive suite, they continue to drive waste out of everything they do.
  • With more being done by fewer people, every employee must perform at a higher level. Companies can’t afford to let the low performers slide. Everyone has to contribute to the bottom-line. Sometimes this translates into unreasonable pressure on talented employees to work harder when they are already working hard, provide innovative solutions within perversely short timeframes, and be accountable for results they cannot control. And sometimes this translates into workers embracing the new responsibilities and opportunities, exceeding even their own expectations.
  • Employees are increasingly better educated. With this higher level of education come greater expectations. Employees expect strong leadership, good management, fair treatment, opportunities to acquire new knowledge and learn new skills, and opportunities to apply their knowledge and skills to meaningful tasks. They are, at the same time, both talented and demanding.
  • Employees are increasingly more diverse in ethnicity, language, socio-economic background, education, age, and worldview. Baby-boomers are staying in the workforce longer because they can’t afford to retire or because they find meaning in their work. The “Y” generation is entering the workforce with very different life experiences and expectations than the generations that came before them. Nearly a third of the workforce in some communities is made up of first and second generation immigrants. Women have become a major influence on company values and are assuming major leadership roles. This diversity is challenging the practices of traditional command-and-control leadership that permeates most organizations.
  • Company loyalty to employees and employee loyalty to the company are no longer as strong as they once were. Downsizing, layoffs, bankruptcies, budget cuts, and pressure on employees to do more with less, have caused employees to lose confidence that their employers will take care of them. Because of this, loyalty is not the motivator that it once was in retaining talent and getting the most from that talent.
  • Many companies have come to rely much more on the “disposable worker”. These are the temps, contractors, contingent workers, and free-lancers who fill the gaps when a company has a job to do but managers would rather hire short-term employees than make a long-term commitment to so-called “permanent” employees. It used to be that these temporary workers were the exception; now they are the rule. Estimates are that a quarter of the workforce could become temporary in the next few years.

So what’s a company leader to do? Given these challenges, how can companies create a high performing workforce in this environment? They need to focus on six main, inter-related behaviors: 1) communication; 2) trust-building; 3) learning; 4) engagement; 5) recognition and reward; and 6) leadership. None of this is easy and all behaviors need constant monitoring and improvement. However, the alternative is a disengaged, unmotivated, low performing, and high-turnover workforce.


Communicate, communicate, communicate! This is the best advice I can give. Keep employees informed whether they ask for the information or not. In difficult economic times, it is more important than ever to push the information out and make sure that everyone in the organization hears the messages. Keeping open lines of communication is good, but don’t wait for questions and concerns; anticipate what employees want to know and get that information to them. And listen, listen, listen. Offer opportunities for individuals and small groups to express their worries and concerns even if there is nothing that can be said at the moment to allay their fears. Tell them what you know about the situation, acknowledge their strong feelings, and show respect for their views. This will go a long way toward building trust and increasing the level of employee engagement even when much about the future is unknown.

In a recession, CEOs can talk about innovation, operations, and sales all they want, and as captains of industry that is probably what they know best, but when it gets down to employee engagement and high performance, the answer is clear: transparent and frequent communication. Robert Polet, CEO of Gucci, the multi-billion dollar, iconic, luxury goods retailer, writes in BusinessWeek:

In addition to setting a tone of calm and control, this is a great time to reiterate the company’s long-term goals and brand positioning while discussing any shorter-term adaptations required to maintain performance. Employees need to understand both current and long-term direction, as well their role in it, to remain motivated and engaged… leaders need to step up their role as communicators, sharing information frequently and honestly in order to maintain trust and engagement.

Maybe the Board of Directors wants to hear about innovation, operations, and sales, but the successful CEO knows that employees pay attention to how and what their leader is communicating. They want to hear a calm, confident voice from someone who is clear about goals and can tell them how managers can contribute to achieving those goals. Employees want to be involved in these decisions and know that they have a role in bringing the company out of the downturn, positioned for future success.


Directly related to communication is trust. There are many definitions of trust.  Susan M. Heathfield, writing for, defines it simply as, “… telling the truth, even when it is difficult, and being truthful, authentic, and trustworthy in your dealings with customers and staff.” (

Trust is critical to high performance, especially in an environment when there are many reasons for employees not to trust their leaders. Fallout from the recession caused employees to doubt their leaders and the institutions that they have relied on in the past. The only way to restore and maintain trust is to communicate regularly, tell the truth, be very clear about meaning, and follow through on any promises or commitments made to employees. Employees will not trust you if they believe that you didn’t tell them the whole truth or that you don’t always do what you say you will do or you don’t always mean what they think you mean.  

Employees gain confidence in leaders who do what they say and organizations that stay on mission. People are willing to change and will take incredible risks if, and only if, they trust that their leaders will support them, allow them to fail, and pick them up and dust them off when they do. It seems like every company today is clamoring for creativity and innovation. But creativity and innovation require risk-taking, and that’s not going to happen unless employees trust their leaders and each other.



Is this the right time to be thinking about employee engagement? If you want to retain valuable employees, if you want to continue to be competitive, if you want to be positioned well for the economic recovery, then the answer is a resounding “yes”…but it’s not easy. It’s no longer enough to have satisfied employees. You need employees who are enthusiastic about their work, who do the best they can every day, and who use their discretionary energy to go the extra mile for the business.

Engaged employees are resilient employees. They will bounce back from the adversity of a bad economy and help position the organization for change and growth. The research is clear about this: companies with high levels of engagement are much more likely to be successful and sustainable.

In David Zinger’s “13 Powerful Guidelines for Employee Engagement Programs,” he writes that the way to develop engagement is to:

Spread engagement around. Make everyone responsible for [his or her] own engagement and accountable to everyone else in the organization. We don’t need people checking up on us, we need people checking in with us to talk about our fluctuating levels of engagement. Avoid putting engagement in the hands of just HR or Internal Communications. This is a line issue, this is everyone’s issue. Don’t forget, CEO’s and Presidents are employees too. (

Zinger is making the point that engagement is everyone’s responsibility. Engagement is not a program or an initiative. It must be ingrained in the culture of the organization. Managers are responsible for learning how to do things that promote engagement and employees are responsible for discovering ways to increase their own engagement. You need a company-wide conversation about engagement.

Engagement occurs when there is communication and trust, but also when employees feel respected and are involved in the life of the organization. Ask for their opinions on important issues. Invite their participation in critical decisions. When they recommend a particular course of action, do what they suggest or explain to them why you are not going in that direction. If you let them know that their ideas have been heard, that will go a long way towards building engagement.

Paul Spiegelman, CEO of The Beryl Companies and CEO of the Small Giants Community, writes in Every manager or business owner must ask, “Do my employees like coming to work or is work a repressive grind that they can’t wait to get away from, unwilling to spend an extra minute at work?” {


Employee learning has always been important, but in this fast changing, post-recession environment, continuous learning by everyone is absolutely critical.  Classroom-based, leader-centered courses are not sufficient. Employees have always learned most of what they need to know outside the classroom anyway; this is even truer now.  Managers must take advantage of this “informal” learning as well as the “formal” learning. Organizations should strive for a culture in which learning is part of everything they do.

One of the most important things managers can do to ensure high performance in their companies is to eliminate the organizational barriers to learning. These barriers include: a failure to align learning interventions (courses, coaching, online programs, job rotation, etc.) with organization’s strategic business goals; managers and learners having low expectations for learning and change; little support from managers for employee learning; no opportunities to apply new learning in the workplace; and a lack of accountability for achieving business results.

Therefore, managers need to pay attention to five factors that make up what Sean Murray and I call the “5As Framework” ( ):

1)     Alignment – ensure that organizational priorities are clear and that employees have the opportunity and resources to learn what they need to know to achieve those priority goals

2)     Anticipation – clearly state expectations for learning and for high performance; continually reinforce this message

3)     Alliance – make learning part of the role of every manager; coach them in how to support learning and performance improvement

4)     Application – provide opportunities for practicing new skills and applying new knowledge; make experimentation and learning part of the culture of the organization

5)     Accountability – hold themselves and managers accountable for employee and team learning that contributes to achieving business goals

Only then will organizations maximize the value of their learning interventions (e.g., training, coaching, mentoring, simulations, job rotation, etc.). Managers who truly want high performance from their team members can’t afford to relinquish responsibility for learning to HR or the Training Department. Trainers won’t be successful, no matter how good the training programs, unless managers create a culture that supports learning and performance improvement. Being mindful of the 5As is a good place to start.

Recognition and Reward

The right incentives must be in place to encourage high performance. Leaders must be recognized and rewarded for creating a work environment that supports high performance and employees must be recognized and rewarded for contributing to a positive workplace and helping the organization achieve its business goals.

Incentives take many forms: salary; bonus; promotions; new titles; new responsibilities; training and development experiences; new work opportunities; public recognition; and, probably the most overlooked incentive, just saying, “Good job.” The right incentive depends on the people who are being rewarded and what is motivating to them. Different people respond differently to different incentives in different situations.

Whatever the incentive, for maximum effect, the key is to tie it clearly to learning and performance, through words and behavior. Employees need to see the connections between their learning, what they do, and the rewards. For example, if you want employees to work effectively in a team, you must give team members the authority to make decisions and show your support for them accepting the consequences of those decisions. Let the group try and fail or try and succeed. Either way, they have the opportunity for learning. Give recognition to the learning, not only the successes.


Bill George, in his book, 7 Lessons For Leading in Crisis, argues that it was a failure of leadership that resulted in the demise of some of the most famous financial institutions. He says that the leaders of these institutions continue to avoid responsibility. He writes:

What shocks me is that leaders are not accepting their responsibility for this fiasco, in spite of the trillions of dollars and millions of jobs that have been lost…Some failed leaders are still in denial, refusing to take responsibility for the missteps that caused their firms to collapse.

Two major leadership themes run through Bill George’s book. One is the notion that truly high performing leaders take responsibility in a crisis. They own the organization’s failures, learn from mistakes, are transparent about this, and apply that learning to the next crisis. The other theme is that high performing leaders keep an ethical compass pointed at their personal “True North”. This is George’s belief that truly great leaders are guided by a set of values and ethical beliefs that help them make the right decisions, especially in a time of crisis.

The tendency is for managers in a recessionary economy to revert to a command-and-control style of leadership. This is risky business. Those managers risk creating a suboptimum work environment and driving out their top talent. I understand why the command-and-control style increases when companies are laying off workers, closing plants, and reducing benefits. Under stress, human beings naturally perceive a restricted range of options. Under these circumstances they will do what they believe is easiest and safest within a limited range. For managers whose role models were command-and-control executives, that style emerges when they feel the stress of a situation with few good options. And the command-and-control, my-way-or-the-highway style is a defense against having to deal with the emotional side of work relationships, which, in a bad economy, can make managers feel vulnerable, whether they are aware of these feelings or not.

As we come out of the recession, we need just the opposite kind of leadership. Our companies need people-centered leadership. The best leaders stay focused on achieving high performance by creating a climate of trust, respect, and honesty in their organizations.


Attracting, training, and retaining talent will be the primary role of managers in the second decade of the 21st Century. Study after study offers evidence that employees perform best and stay longest when their bosses are respectful, listen, and support high levels of engagement. Don’t neglect the people-side of the business when preparing to emerge from the recession. Communicate, build trust, facilitate engagement, provide opportunities for learning, recognize and reward risk-taking as well as success. Be a people-centered leader.

Stephen J. Gill, Ph.D., is an independent consultant with over 25 years experience in employee training and performance improvement. He works with a wide variety of business, non -profit, and government organizations analyzing their learning needs and evaluating the effectiveness of their training and development programs. He has published over 45 articles, book chapters, and books, as well as handbooks and manuals related to learning and development.

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