The crisis has been dragging on for five years now, six years in some sectors. The situation is slowly starting to improve, but we’re not there yet. Lots of companies are getting to the ends of their reserves, mental fortitude is wearing thin, and belief in better times ahead is made more difficult by governments doing too little to improve the business climate. So we will have to weather the storm ourselves.

But times of crisis make us uncertain, and uncertainty makes people more cost-conscious, which in turn leads to more control and so also more overheads. Management boards have to realize that control affects employees’ levels of involvement and commitment, and so also their motivation. Control results in people having to spend more hours achieving the same result. Add to this the added pressure that times of crisis put on prices, and it becomes clear to see why even more work is required to generate the same turnover as before.

Basically, employees are put under too much pressure. They work more hours for the same pay, perhaps become less motivated, and might even fear losing their job. The result: all this uncertainty means people get stuck in a relentless cycle that doesn’t give them anything other than too much stress.

Better results from working less

Let’s think in a cost-conscious way. Get rid of all the excessive control in unnecessary layers of management; it’s better to create an environment in which employees’ levels of involvement and commitment can grow. This will lead to improved performance and a better working atmosphere. Stimulating employees’ involvement helps companies achieve better results at lower costs with fewer working hours and less stress. Give employees the space to balance their skills and responsibilities. Stability is a key factor here: avoid lurching from unnecessary costs in good times to big savings in times of crisis.

Five fruitful crisis measures:

  • Clearly communicate challenges and corresponding solutions;
  • Create an environment in which everyone shares everything, including mistakes, so people can find solutions together;
  • Ask groups of employees to develop proposals for cost optimizations that do not threaten the business impact;
  • Stimulate ideas that help increase your services’ impact on clients;
  • Don’t lose yourself in excessive bureaucracy or complex procedures.

Despite all the available books and training courses on empowerment, motivation, stress and delegation, too many organizations are compelling their managers to exert extensive control. This is well-intentioned, but it just serves to aggravate the effects of the crisis by putting more pressure on managers to control employees at all levels. It results in more work in the form of extra reports, and management teams spend more time attending meetings. They think they are gaining control by following employees’ emails in cc when in fact this traffic is actually just taking up more of their time. So stop the crisis for yourself by limiting the levels of control to a minimum, and focus on developing your strengths.

Are we on the right track with endless discussions about how to help industry recover?

Business people and trade organizations are focussing on the cost of labour. But that in itself isn’t a solution. Is it better to buy a BMW in China than a Renault because of Germany’s more beneficial labour costs compared to France’s? It’s true that the cost of labour is too high here in Belgium, but if we think that this is the sole root of problem, we are simply being dishonest with ourselves.

Politicians shout loudly calling for more innovation. And Belgium does indeed score badly when it comes to investing in R&D, but there isn’t always a direct link between levels of investment and quality of innovation. I’ve been in contact with technology companies at home and abroad for over 20 years, and it’s clear that Belgian engineers score very highly in their specialist domains when it comes to productivity and creativity.

Furthermore, too much focus on product innovation results in a rat race in which having the lead is now less important with insufficient financial gains. No single company can keep on winning this race. Option NV couldn’t maintain its lead over Chinese companies. And Barco had the same problem over multiple technology cycles, which current CEO, Eric Van Zele, recognized as soon as he took up his role.

Companies can only profit from the raising of R&D stakes by avoiding the battle as much as possible and packaging technology in solutions that the market wants. Because the more product maturity grows, the more the market demands a better package. Most clients aren’t looking for the latest products; they buy the product that creates the most value for them.

This means that skills other than just innovation from R&D departments are required. Understanding customers and the environment is crucial for delivering value. A value-driven approach gives products longer lifecycles so they can remain competitive with large volumes. This improves the financial leverage of investments, increases profits, and enables a company to finance its further expansion. Not ‘time to market’ but ‘on time to market’ is the motto.

You are ready to work on this sustainable growth when your product innovations reinforce the added value that your client perceives (because otherwise you are only innovating in order to beat your competitors in the technology rat race). Clients are then prepared to pay more for your strengths. This is possible when your R&D personnel have enough contact with clients to really understand how and why your products are used. When your sales and marketing activities no longer focus just on the product, but also on creating added value. And when you organize your entire company in such a way that everyone is focussing on clients and the market.

There was one subject that kept coming up for discussion in various talks at our recent VOV fair. Local branches of multinationals are given a vision with a number of central themes, but we don’t always know how best to deal with them. Many people have practical plans for implementing conceptual values in a pragmatic way, but value decisions are not always paid sufficient attention when they’re made 10,000km away.

Nonetheless, entire organizations benefit from sharing general company values, because they enable everyone to work towards the same goals, and employees’ engagement with the company increases because they feel more involved. It’s also important for directors to fully implement values and ensure they are in line with employee activities for the business strategy to be executed successfully.

So when you receive a video call from Seoul, for example, saying there needs to be more passion in 2014, or a greater eye for detail or something, how do you deal with it?

  1. Make the values specific for each department and role in your organization. What does passion mean for your technical aftersales department? What does XYZ mean for the processing of supplier invoices? Find, together with the management team, the concrete ways that employees benefit from the values.
  2. Continue to communicate the values throughout the year and use all existing internal communication resources for feedback and evaluation. Be specific with your values: how you need to apply them in specific situations, where a mistake was actually made, what was the outcome, who was affected, and what were personal successes.
  3. Include the values in all forms of evaluation to assess how they affect employees.

Managers like it when instructions are followed correctly. This seems to be in the best interests of the proper functioning of your organization. There is a boss who details what has to happen when, and there are employees whose performance is measured against the instructions received, and who have to be accountable for any deviations. If this doesn’t produce the desired result, but employees can still easily demonstrate that they have followed their instructions properly, the only person this has consequences for, in principle, is the boss.

This is becoming less and less the norm. Employees want to work in freedom and decide for themselves when and how they tackle a specific task. They want to develop their talents, grab their opportunities, and have a full life outside of work. In the war for talent, employers who don’t fully understand this will be left behind, stranded without a team.

So it’s better to think in terms of responsibilities than in terms of tasks. Provide clear guidelines about the desired result, but leave the way that leads there more open.
This radical change in control is slowly sinking in with some managers, but the majority still struggle with it. They follow training courses and receive coaching, but have a fundamental difficulty with their authority no longer coming from their role. They need a new type of relationship with employees; a relationship built on trust and support, and the provision of opportunities and second chances. And all this has to happen without the quality of results being adversely affected, and even in such a way that the relational added value can be used to improve results.

We still have a long way to go. The Conference Board says internal satisfaction measurements historically show low figures. Companies that do succeed in switching tasks to responsibilities, however, outclass their industry peers in the medium term. This is backed up with hard figures.