There are many factors at play when it comes to retention and employee happiness, but one question really gets at the core of both: Are your people motivated? Motivation is what gets employees in the door every morning, keeps them committed to doing great work and inspires them to continuously go above and beyond. It’s also a crucial ingredient in building happy, productive teams.

But even the most experienced leader struggles with motivating people. It’s hard to be a cheerleader 24/7, and it’s even more challenging to motivate others when times are tough.

I’ve experienced this firsthand at Ultimate Software. In the early 2000s, we shifted our business model, embracing new cloud technology versus traditional, on-premises software. In hindsight, it was the right decision for us as a company, one that has contributed significantly to our current success. But we faced a heavy amount of skepticism from investors at the time and saw our stock performance take a temporary dip.

While it’s easy to let such questioning from others lead to self-doubt, we were confident in our decision. We never wavered, and our leadership team made a conscious effort to remain optimistic and to keep our employees motivated. Looking back, we made it through those challenging times because we were honest and transparent with our employees, and were able to lean on the rock-solid culture we had begun building on day one.

Whether you’re having the best quarter in company history or struggling through temporary setbacks, reminding yourself of a few core pillars can help keep teams motivated through good times and bad:

When The Going Gets Tough, Get Honest

When things aren’t going well, it can be felt across all levels of the company, and employees are going to have questions. Ignoring these questions can lead to uncertainty and mistrust, two factors that often undermine employee motivation.

Help prevent these negative feelings by communicating with employees early and often. Whether it’s a companywide concern (such as losing a major business partner) or it impacts only members of a specific team (maybe they’re feeling the effects of being temporarily understaffed), employees need to hear you have their backs. When you acknowledge feelings of uncertainty, and candidly address the situation, your people will likely feel supported, motivated and inspired to have your back in return.

Team Chemistry Is Crucial

Honesty and communication from the top down is important, but motivation shouldn’t rest solely on the shoulders of the C-suite. We recently conducted a nationwide study that found that 93% of employees say trust in their direct boss is essential to staying satisfied at work. When employees trust their managers, they’re more likely to stay with the company and stay motivated.

Also, it’s important to have processes in place that gauge managers’ ability to motivate their direct reports. The same national study found that 71% of managers think they know how to motivate their team, but only 44% of employees actually agree their manager does. This gap shows just how critical it is for managers to routinely check in with their direct reports and to have regular conversations about their motivations at work.

Prioritize People Over Profits

This is much easier said than done, of course, and not all businesses are able to embrace this principle, but good leaders understand the intricate relationship between employee engagement and company success. If business performance is suffering, quick cuts — reducing hours, limiting 401(k) matching or reducing benefits such as food or travel stipends — might save money in the short term, but could take a long-term toll on employee morale.

Wherever possible, cut back in areas that won’t be felt directly by your people. When employees feel backed by their company, they’re more likely to stay motivated, engaged and happy. And happier employees will lead to happier customers (and shareholders): Research shows companies with happy employees outperform the competition by 20%, and their shareholders see positive returns.

Happier employees are 20% more productive.
Image: Social Market Foundation

When you’re worried about the future, it’s hard to remain optimistic and motivated. When we faced our most challenging times, we focused on doing the right thing for our people and our business. The times may have changed, but our focus on employees hasn’t. If you work to instill a culture that invests first in its people, you’ll find support in one another. After all, optimism — and the motivation that comes with it — is easier to maintain when you’re all working together.