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How To Keep Employees Motivated During Challenging Times: 3 Soft Skills Leaders Should Use

Siddharth Taparia

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How do you get the best out of your leaders and employees in a challenging environment?

One of the biggest takeaways from the last 12 months for us here at SAP was learning how to challenge our teams while still being sensitive to what was happening in the world. We are a global company with hundreds of thousands of employees, partners, and customers. And so business as usual needed to continue, company milestones needed to be achieved, responsibilities needed to be upheld—and at the same time, leaders needed to find ways to make sure employees felt supported, heard, and intrinsically motivated. 

Effective leadership came down to soft skills. This meant changing the way we thought about communicating with each other, abandoning some of our pre-2020 processes and ways of working, and most of all, making time and space to acknowledge stressors outside of the day-to-day at the company. We needed to have conversations around COVID. We needed to have conversations about the political climate, the protests, and the impact the pandemic was having on our economy as well as individual circumstances. 

If there was ever a time to examine the soft skills of your leadership team, the last year was it.

Here are some soft skills I found to be most important, as well as most effective in keeping employees engaged and motivated during challenging times.

Soft Skill #1: Tailor your communication based on who you are talking to, about what, when, and why.

Usual rules do not apply in unusual circumstances. 

As soon as we moved our entire company to work remotely, we had to rethink what that meant about communicating with each other: giving directives, practicing active listening, providing constructive feedback from afar, and so on. The biggest shift here ended up being a heightened sense of personalized engagement—physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

  • Acknowledge each other’s individual situations, e.g., people working at home with young kids, juggling homeschooling, or being in cities more exposed to COVID, etc.
  • Listen to each other’s perspectives on what was happening in the world, from COVID testing to political turmoil to protests in home towns and cities to fluctuations in the economy.
  • Support each other based on the uniqueness of uncertainty, by understanding that what one person needs to feel supported might be different from what another person needs.
  • Custom-tailored, genuine communication became the single most important skill set from our leaders. It was also a key driver in ensuring that despite difficult circumstances, we kept moving forward as a company.

Soft Skill #2: Tap into people’s intrinsic motivations by providing meaningful opportunities.

When morale is low, the best thing you can do as a leader is find something people can rally behind.

The way you do this is by looking for intrinsic motivations you can emphasize or give people autonomy over. For example, in 2020 I was asked by our CMO to develop a year-end review video for the company. It had been a challenging year, and we wanted to share a recap video of all that our customers, partners, and communities had gone through—and how we had made it out the other side together. 

Immediately, one of our individual contributors came to mind. He had created some really great videos for us in the past, so I reached out to him and asked if he would be willing to own this project. Since this appealed to his passion, he ran with it—and a few weeks later, we had a video that was so good, we started talking about whether we should run it as a TV ad. And at the end of the year, it ran during the NBA games on Christmas Day, an NFL game, and on ABC’s New Year’s Eve program. 

This assignment surpassed all of our expectations, and the reason it moved forward so efficiently was because it was being created by someone who was intrinsically motivated.

Soft Skill #3: Be the first to take accountability, and the last to take credit for the work.

And finally, one of the biggest keys to motivating people during challenging times is to ensure everyone understands the impact of their individual contributions.

As leaders, this means being the one to not only make explicit why people’s work matters and how it plays a role in the greater success of the company, but also to put the team’s efforts ahead of your own. I like to think of it as standing in front of your team when taking incoming fire, and getting out of their way when they’re executing on the work. Your job is to protect them, inspire them, support them, and help them get whatever they need to be successful—and your job is also to get out of the way, allow them to be successful, and in the end, celebrate their efforts far more than your own.

Last year was a humbling year, for everyone.

In many ways, we all learned how to be leaders, and we all learned how to be effective team members. Job titles and formal work responsibilities went out the window. Instead, we were all challenged to rely on each other in ways we hadn’t been expected to in years past.

The teams that were successful, and who will continue to move forward in 2021, prioritized practicing these soft skills on a daily basis.

Siddharth Taparia is the Senior Vice President and Global Head of Brand and Experience Marketing at SAP where he has the global end to end responsibility for SAP's Corporate Marketing functions including Brand, Media, Advertising, Sponsorships, Digital Content, Events and Experience Centers. He is responsible for growing the SAP Brand, the 17th most valuable in the world and the most valuable brand in Germany as well as driving awareness and demand generation.

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