The good news according to Paul Krugman is that the recession may end this year. The bad news is that it’s effects are liable to linger for five years. When we’re done cheering that we’ve pulled ourselves back from the brink, we find that doing business in this economy is still one tough slog and it’s not likely to get any easier soon.

The question that’s repeatedly asked is how can managers keep employees engaged in times like these. The answer is to get employees engaged.

A crisis like this puts everything on the table. In good times, all of us are eager to protect the status quo, but in bad times, we’re all looking for a change. When times are really bad, we don’t have to be encouraged to move out of our comfort zones because they no longer exist. The bolder the action, the better.

GM is finally getting rid of the car lines they should’ve ditched decades ago. They’re now able to change the terms of the union contract, shutter inefficient plants, and rationalize their dealer network. But these are not bold actions. They’re just ways to cut expenses mandated by a lack of cash and their new owners, the taxpayers.

Bold action would be to completely rethink their business from strategy through implementation. But the first thing that needs to be rethought is the relationship with their people. GM can no longer afford to squander their resources, and there is no resource more valuable then the minds and hearts of the employees. Hierarchy, autocratic decision-making. and pointless bureaucracy are now luxuries beyond the company’s means. Everyone must be involved in turning the company around.

It should start with an aspirational vision for the future and a viable competitive strategy to ensure there will be a future. This is rightfully the province of top management, but coming up with the best way to implement the strategy is everybody’s job. With the strategy as their guide and within their areas of responsibility, all employees should be involved in joint problem solving and planning sessions to come up with the best way of conducting their business. The people doing the work have a wealth of ideas about how to do it better. All that’s needed is a simple process to involve them.

This kind of involvement not only pays huge dividends for the business, it’s just what people need in times of crisis. When we’re engaged, we don’t have time to sit around bemoaning our fate.  When we contribute, we have control over our destiny and feel less stress. When we’re the ones coming up with new ways of doing our jobs, we’re highly motivated to make them work.

It’s not difficult get employees engaged. Now more than ever, they’re eager to participate, and every manager has the tools necessary to make it happen. All they need to do is make it clear what’s at stake and ask for suggestions. There may be some stumbles at first, but managers will soon learn how to guide employees toward practical ideas that they’re able to implement.

The biggest challenge will be for managers to move from a controlling mode into a supportive one. If they genuinely believe in the need for their employees to be engaged, they’ll intuitively know how to bring it about. If they act with integrity and conviction, employees will even forgive a few missteps here and there.

It’s alway been a good idea to involve employees. For the foreseeable future, it’ll be a necessity.

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