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3 Ways to Motivate and Energize Your Communications Team


October 26, 2019

Picture this: the year is 1998 and after successfully wrapping up my internship, my supervisor hands me a letter of recommendation.

Among the typical, “great writer,” “personable” and “hard worker” compliments, was a comment that now, some 20+ years later, stands out: my supervisor commended me for, “…using her own personal internet resources to conduct research.”

When was the last time someone thanked you for using your personal resources to do your job without extra compensation?! In fact, when was the last time someone thanked you?

Keep in mind, this was back in 1998 when we still sent pitches via fax. Cell phones were only used for talking to someone else (not as personal computers). Social media didn’t exist. And your home internet service was limited to a certain number of hours each month. The fact that I used a portion of my 10 hours of personal monthly internet access for a job was a BIG DEAL at the time.

Let’s compare that to today’s world, where the pressure for practitioners to be connected non-stop is only increasing, not only due to the rapid advances in technology but also because of our personal and societal habits.

PR, marketing, social, web, design, research, data, metrics, SEO, PPC, crisis management. We need to do ALL. THE. THINGS.

So how, as leaders, do we engage and motivate our communications team when they really don’t have the chance to slow down?

Clear expectations

Well first, we must ensure our employees connect with our organization’s mission and vision.


Research has shown, time and time again (and I have oodles of studies from my dissertation work if you’re interested in some light bedtime reading) that there is high turnover and low morale when employees cannot align their work to an overall purpose.

You must also be clear when it comes to your expectations for them. They need to understand how their efforts–whether they are a junior staffer or VP–are making a difference to your organization (and even the people you serve) in order to remain engaged and loyal.

Think about this: if employees can’t see how their work is making an impact on your institutional mission and goals, how are they supposed to stay motivated during the tough times?

I get that many organizations can’t offer what bigger corporations can (QUARTERLY BONUSES! TRIPS TO HAWAII FOR THE TOP SALESPERSON! FREE LEXUS LEASE!). But there are other ways…ways that often don’t cost much money.

Empathy + encouragement = engagement

Here are three inexpensive and actionable ideas you can easily implement that will help motivate and energize your team.

Number 1: Talk to your team, one-on-one, about their own goals and motivations.

What are their career goals? Does your entry-level communications coordinator aspire to be a creative director one day? Then perhaps professional development opportunities that begin prepping her for that path would encourage, energize and motivate her.

One of the best supervisors I ever had, said to me on my first day, “Listen, I know you’re talented and you have your own goals. I just ask that you give me two good years and I will help you get to where you need to be to make that happen.”

Guess what? I just about doubled that time with her. Recognizing there would be little upward mobility in that organization, she did exactly what she promised me: she recommended me for leadership positions within the university. She volunteered me to represent our university at industry events. She brought me along to “big wig” presentations so I could learn from the best.

And for that, I am forever grateful…and if she were to ever call up and say, “I need your help with something,” I’d drop everything because I will never forget how she supported and encouraged me.

Number 2: Little things matter.

I’ve worked the majority of my career in education and nonprofit meaning I had pretty much $0 to spend on my staff. In fact, because of either donor or public funding, it wasn’t just a budget issue, it was a legal no-no. So, I’ve had to be creative with what I could do for my team since whatever it was, usually came out of my own pocket.

Here are a few ideas that worked for me AND have been proven by research to be morale-boosting:

  • Recognize one of your staffers for their work in a meeting (with that person present).
  • Tell a team member you noticed how they helped a co-worker or how impressed you were with how they handled themselves in a difficult situation.
  • If they scrambled to pull together a last-minute report for your meeting with the president and went above-and-beyond, leave handwritten thank you cards on their desks for them to find when they come in the next morning.
  • If your organization doesn’t do much in terms of employee engagement, do it yourself. I once had a team of six, and for their birthdays I would stop at a bakery and pick them up mini-cakes or their favorite sweets and surprise them when they arrived at the office. I also brought in a mini-Keurig and cases of their favorite coffee pods so they had their own coffee bar (our organization didn’t offer employees free coffee, so this was a big treat for them).

Little things really do add up. And guess what happens? The kindness starts to circulate, and team members or other co-workers start emulating your actions. I’ve seen this happen firsthand at multiple organizations: one person decides to bake cookies for the office and a few weeks later, someone else brings in brownies. Or, you circulate handwritten notes and soon enough, you begin to receive them. Just don’t do something and expect to get something in return; do it out of the goodness of your heart.

Number 3: Model the behavior.

When was the last time you encouraged your team to take their lunch breaks? To not answer emails during vacation? To get up from a frustrating project and take a 20-minute walk to clear their heads?

Yes, there are times we absolutely MUST power through, but as senior practitioners, we need to be on the lookout for signs of burnout in our team. Most of us have experienced it at one point in our careers, and as leaders, I truly believe we need to teach our teams that it’s okay to step away. It’s okay to disconnect occasionally. It’s okay to take care of ourselves. In fact, it should be a non-negotiable.

But in order to do this, we must also model the behavior. And I can tell you that I wasn’t always good at this.

As an executive director at one organization, I was running from meeting to meeting every day. I would tell my team to not check their emails over the weekend…to take time to unwind. But finding that the only time I could actually get to my emails was on the weekend, I would load their inboxes up, not even thinking about the stress I was causing them first thing on Monday morning. I thought I was being responsive to them, but by me not modeling the behavior, how could they, “Do as I say, not as I do?”

The numbers don’t lie

Let me give you some stats.

According to the 2017 Gallup State of the American Workplace, only 33% of American workers are engaged.

And 51% of workers say they are actively looking for a new job or watching for openings

Think about that for a moment.

We work in a stressful industry. Yes, communications can be a lot of fun, challenging and rewarding. But let’s admit it: it can often be thankless and frustrating.

However, when we’re emphatic, we’re more likely to have energetic and productive employees. And if you still can’t get your head around the concept of supporting others, think about how you want to be treated at work, and I mean REALLY treated.

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