By Daniel Kehrer

Many small businesses chug along for years, growing just a little each year. Their owners develop a kind of complacency. Then one day they begin to realize that employee morale has soured, productivity has declined and the business just isn’t growing as fast as they think it should. For lack of a better term, the business has fallen into a funk (what the dictionary defines as a low or depressed mood). That certainly defines the mindset at many small companies these days. The media says the economy has been in recovery mode for years, but many smaller companies still feel a little trapped.

Business owners and employees both feel increasingly overworked, under-appreciated, and skeptical. Despite the hopeful talk, they remain anxious, distrustful, and worst of all, disengaged. Research from Gallup estimates that disengaged employees cost their companies big bucks – as much as one out of every three payroll dollars. Think about your own business. Are you losing a third of your entire payroll to simple negativity? Whether the funk descended on your business recently or has been there for years, you need to face it and change it.

Here’s one explanation of what’s happened lately. For years, small business owners and managers were focused on the numbers, and they were good. Morale was up, and everyone was happy. But then the cycle changed and growth slowed or even reversed. When you’re focused on numbers and they go down – or simply don’t grow as quickly as you’d like – the mood drops with them and pessimism creeps in. As a result, engagement and performance drop. That kind of workplace funk could be sapping your cash flow at a time when every penny is important.

To right the ship, you must change your leadership focus from numbers to culture, a focus on purpose, morale, and loyalty. That boils down to engaged relationships. Three rules can help you get there:

  • Rule #1: Positive communication kills negativity. Recovery or no recovery, these are uncertain times. Employees always wonder what’s going to happen next, whether their jobs will be impacted, and what action they should take. That uncertainty creates a void. Unless you fill the void with clear, positive information, people will assume the worst. Negativity will dominate everyone’s thoughts and actions. The most important thing a manager can do during times of uncertainty is to communicate with transparency, authenticity, and clarity. Even when the news is not as positive as you hoped, you can communicate it positively: Tell the truth, give everyone a plan, and help them believe.
  • Rule #2: Employees need nourishment to thrive. Most employees just want to know that you care about them and that they can trust you. If they feel you do, they will be more likely to become contributors to your success. Employees who feel cared for and nourished are more engaged in what they’re doing and will work to their highest potential. If you learn to view your employees like family, that will change the way you treat them.
  • Rule #3: Workplace relationships count. Avoid appearing constantly stressed and overworked, as tough as that might seem. With projects to complete, to-do lists to accomplish, goals to hit, and outcomes to achieve, business owners and managers sometimes throw employees under the bus as they rush toward the next deadline. Hyperactivity and stress drive the brain into survival mode. We stop thinking about serving other people, mentoring them, and helping them to thrive. Business leaders sometimes drop the ball Just when they need to be the most engaging. What our employees need the most, we’re delivering the least. The problems then grow and multiply.

Remember that it’s not the numbers that drive people, but people and relationships that drive numbers.

Daniel Kehrer, Founder & Managing Director of BizBest Media Corp., is a nationally-known expert on small businesses, start-ups, content marketing, entrepreneurship, and social media. He has an MBA from UCLA/Anderson.