holiday season

Four Leadership Insights about Employee Motivation During the Holiday Season

Our mental picture of the holiday season may look like this: snow falls gently to the ground; carollers go door-to-door dressed in quaint costumes singing traditional holiday favorites; children press their faces against department store windows, gazing longingly at the holiday displays. A time to be nice to your fellow humans, to reflect on the accomplishments of the past year, and to look forward to the excitement of the New Year.

It’s wonderful if you live in a Norman Rockwell painting, but none of us do. Instead, we often have a slightly more Scrooge-like perspective: the holiday season is a time when stores are crowded, the weather sucks, and people are grumpy. And at work, team members slack off, the company throws expensive parties where certain people drink too much and do things everyone wants to forget, people exchange awkward Secret Santa gifts no one wants, and there’s very little productivity.

Extending from American Thanksgiving until the hangover subsides around January 3, we’re talking about a little more than 10 percent of the working year. This time comes with certain expectations for organizations to show appreciation to their people. The reaction of many companies is to follow the traditional checklist of office parties, gift giving, and expecting productivity to be low, all while resenting the process and expense, and anxiously anticipating the New Year.

That sounds less attractive than the Normal Rockwell universe, but we should take some comfort in that it doesn’t have to be this way. No improvement is possible without change, and positive change is rarely accomplished without understanding the bigger picture. It’s also rarely accomplished without effort.

In the case of the holiday season, a missing part of that bigger picture is frequently a perspective on how employee objectives and company objectives align. A disconnect here is almost always the root of motivation issues, and it is no different during the month of December.

Let’s take a step back, sit by the fire, sip on some hot chocolate, and consider some ideas about the work environment and the holiday season:

1. Realistic Holiday Expectations

The common perception of the December holiday period is that it is a time to rest, recharge, and to plan for the upcoming year. Although this may not apply to your entire team, many great team members work hard throughout the year with the expectation that they will get a bit of downtime during the holiday period.

Any expectation that productivity will be maintained at the level you might see in March or October, is unlikely to be met, and is likely to create resentment among the team. So be reasonable in setting expectations, which means accepting that while productivity may be lower, this is a healthy part of the work cycle.

2. Celebrate as a Team

Although team members may feel it is important to have an organizational recognition of the holiday season, don’t assume you know how the team wants to mark the occasion. Particularly in large offices, parties with spouses that total several hundred attendees means there is little time for the team to connect, lots of time for awkward socializing with people you only meet once a year, and ultimately an experience more punishing than rewarding.

Instead of assuming, talk to your team about how they would like to celebrate, and be prepared to go against tradition. Some groups like to take Fridays in December to go for drinks after work. Some teams want to play paintball. And yes, some teams want to do a more traditional holiday party. There is no right and wrong here; only right or wrong for your team. And the only way to know is to engage the team in a discussion.

3. Accomplish Holiday Goals

Set clear expectations for behavior and productivity during the holiday season. It’s hard to pretend it’s business as usual if times are slower, and people have to make an effort to appear busy. Instead, engage the team in planning during the November time frame, set quantifiable goals for what needs to be accomplished over the holidays, goals that reflect a realistic level of effort, and talk with each team member about what they’ll be doing during that time frame.

Then, manage the group to those expectations. Accomplishing these realistic goals becomes a motivator for the team, and leads to a sense of satisfaction, rather than disappointment at what didn’t happen.

4. Holiday Season Accountability


Now is not the time to tolerate behavior that wouldn’t normally be acceptable. There is never a time for that without creating issues. Although productivity expectations may be lower during this period, failing to deliver on what was agreed to is never acceptable. Similarly, allowing people (often with the help of alcohol) to start acting like your gropey Uncle Albert at family weddings should not be tolerated. Hold your team to the same standard of behavior and respect as the rest of the year.

Perhaps most important to consider is that keeping a team engaged and motivated is a long-term process, not something to think about once a year. In the same way we shouldn’t wait for the holidays to treat our fellow human beings with respect and kindness, we can’t think about our motivation and engagement strategy as existing only in a particular time frame.

Keeping employee objectives and rewards aligned with organizational objectives is the driver. Although the elements may be different depending on the circumstances the calendar brings, it needs to be a coherent strategy implemented throughout the year.



Mackenzie Kyle

Mackenzie Kyle is the Regional Managing Partner for MNP, a national Consulting and Accounting firm and the author of "The Performance Principle: A Practical Guide to Understanding Motivation in the Modern Workplace."

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