Resource Management

Motivating Top Talent in De-Motivating Times

brad remillard boss employeesBuilding a positive culture in the workplace can help motivate and retain top talent.

In difficult times, ensuring that top talent feels motivated is often low on the priority lists of managers or CEOs. Most employees are working long hours and doing the jobs of two people. Stress is at an all-time high, fear of layoffs is constant, salaries are frozen, pay cuts have been implemented and bonuses have long been forgotten. For many companies, this culture is reality.

How do you motivate your top talent to achieve the company’s goals? How do you keep them from contacting recruiters? How do you keep them passionate about coming to work and engaged day after day? The answer to all of these is “culture.”

Keeping Top Talent Motivated

Even in difficult times, top talent will, by definition, always rise to the occasion. They strive to be the best. If they do not, they aren’t top talent. However, even top talent can burn out, feel frustrated, miss the light at the end of the tunnel or wonder if they are really contributing. It is the role of all CEOs and managers to ensure these things don’t happen. Company leadership should focus on the following areas to retain and even attract top talent in difficult times.

Performance-Based Culture

Companies must have a performance-based culture. Even in difficult times, companies should develop clearly defined goals. These goals must cascade down to your top talent and include quantifiable objectives that provide a sense of accomplishment when reached. Providing specific, time-based goals with achievable results clarifies exactly what is expected of your people. Your best talent will embrace a goal and work hard until it has been achieved. Employee engagement is critical to retaining your best people.

A Well-Defined Culture

A dysfunctional culture is probably the biggest reason top talent gets nervous and begins to think outside your company. Do you know your company’s culture? Can you define it? Will your executive staff define it the same way? Will the in-the-trench worker bees define it the same way? If not, this is the time to begin working on it.

Once the culture is well defined, it is useful to examine whether daily behaviors match the culture. For example, you cannot claim to have a culture of teamwork if the manager’s idea of teamwork is, “As long as we do things my way, without any questions, you can be on my team.” Do managers—from the CEO on down—demonstrate the company culture on a daily basis when they deal with employees, customers and vendors?

Respect and Appreciation

This is probably the least expensive and least used method of motivation. Small things can make a big difference to top talent. Respecting their contributions, listening to them, including them in the decision-making process, and asking for their thoughts and ideas all make them feel respected and appreciated. Consider building a culture that respects your top talent so they feel appreciated. Top talent does not want to be taken for granted.


Consistent feedback could be considered a more formal subset of the respect and appreciation method. This includes regular and structured one-on-one feedback sessions. These sessions should not take place while standing in the hallway; they entail actually sitting down and focusing on the employee. Giving them feedback, encouraging them, listening to what their needs are (even if they cannot be met), taking an interest in their career, and building a shared bond  all make employees feel that their manager cares about them as a person.


You may have experienced a manager with this philosophy: “That is what they get paid for. Why should I thank them? They should thank me for having a job.” How did you like it? Compare that to a manager with this philosophy: “Thanks, I know this is just part of your job, but I appreciate the pride you take in your work. It helps everyone in the department.” How would you like that?

A little praise goes a long way to motivate people. Yes, perhaps employees should be glad to have a job in such difficult times, but demonstrating appreciation may help to retain top talent when the economy turns and their career options expand.

Education and Growth

Top talent insists on improvement. They know that once their learning curve flattens out, future opportunities can become limited. Top talent does not like to limit their growth potential. Giving your best people the opportunity to take additional classes, lead a project outside their normal job or serve on a cross-functional team will ensure they are improving themselves. All these opportunities help your top talent to grow professionally and become more valuable employees.

Consider these six areas as a way to motivate your top talent. Your best people will appreciate this more than most managers realize. The increase in productivity that comes from having motivated employees is the best ROI any company can receive.

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