What makes employees stop working and start loafing? Is there a virus that gets into the nervous system? Is it all about ego; not getting more money or more acknowledgements?
In this era of less...everything; less time, less resources, less orders, less fun, less energy, it is necessary to look at the interactions we create and really see the part each of us plays in diminishing or enhancing how we behave together at work.
Rather than just shrug shoulders and say that workers are lazy or incompetent how about looking at the messages they are given and really understand those that cause the double-bind that exacerbates incompetence.
First, when the economy is down what are the ways to measure success? If the only measure is bottom line numbers you will find that sooner or later there will be a drop in performance. Think about it this way. Run a marathon in your mind. Go ahead, sit in a comfortable chair and see yourself running down a country road for 20 some miles. See the banner ahead that you are almost there, just around the bend. Then you get past the last corner turn and no one is there to cheer and congratulate because the marker has been moved a few miles beyond.
Now keep this up for a few more minutes. Never mind that it is getting tiring and annoying. Really, all you are doing is sitting in a chair. So, no complaining; ask yourself the question: how long before you would finally give up, get the pizza and beer and forget the race? That's what happens when it’s only and all about numbers.
Next, what do you think even the best employee will do when their desks, already deep in paper, are given more and more until, like The Sorcerer's Apprentice papers are all over the floor and pouring into the hallway? And this is in the "paperless days" of the internet!
They may decide to join their ex-marathon running colleagues for pizza and beer. Or they may just climb over the paperwork, find an empty office so they can play computer games to relieve the stress of "too muchness". Even the toughest employee will stop when there is no limit to the extra burden put on them.
Did you ever think about how you show favoritism at work? You say you don't. Maybe it would be a good idea to get some feedback here. Often, especially when times are rough there is a tendency to give pats on the back to employees who know people, especially people who just might become customers. There is often an air of desperation and those who are doing the hard work are forgotten in the bright flame of the "I know the right people who will bail us out so follow me."
Often it sounds glitzy and exciting. Yet, I have often seen the best employees throw in the towel when it is their hard work that keeps the ship moving forward and they are just not being seen. By the time Mr. Glitz says "guess it is not going to work" you have a valued employee doodling at his desk. Really excellent employees need acknowledgement yet will not send up flares for attention and eventually give up and just do the minimum.
Lastly, think about what you are rewarding. Is it excellence, even if the first few attempts lead down dead end roads? Often as leaders we will reward mediocrity because it is safe and predictable. Once we begin going down that slippery slope to what is average, safe and predictable we are asking everyone to join the team. Soon the creative types will either quit, or be fired, because they cannot fit into the mold of sameness, the rest will become lemmings.
So, before saying that old line "it is hard to find good employees" you best look inward. Once you note the standards you have developed for your work force and make the necessary changes that limit performance you will have a stronger team that can take the tough times without breaking their stride.