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Motivating your team when times are tough

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Q: Startups face endless issues and founders often forget that their employees are their most valuable asset. I’m a 17-year-old entrepreneur, and I know that my staff’s motivation is critical to a company’s success.

But during tough times, how do you embrace failure while helping your team stay motivated?

— Elviss Straupenieks, Latvia


Failure is an inevitable part of running a business. That fact doesn’t make it any easier to deal with, but it is important to remember; especially when things aren’t going well with your company.

One key thing to keep in mind: When times are bad, it’s important not to place the blame on your team. They will be dealing with the same feelings of deflation, and will look to you for guidance on how to respond.

Years ago, before my first full-time business, Student magazine, was up and running, I’d already failed at a few businesses; namely selling Christmas trees and breeding budgerigars. Student was a critical success, but it struggled to make money. However, rather than focus on the negatives, I remained upbeat, and my team followed suit.

With a positive mindset, we were able to focus on a part of the business that was working well for the magazine: selling mail-order records. Eventually, we transformed from a magazine business into a music company. You could either see this as a failed commercial magazine; or a great steppingstone to the whole world of Virgin!

As I said, bad times are inevitable for entrepreneurs. Here are my four steps for helping to motivate a team during these times:



As soon as possible, begin discussions with your team about what’s going wrong with the business. Have an honest and open dialogue in which everyone can offer their ideas and opinions. Discourage them from blaming others, but own your personal mistakes and allow other team members to do the same. Encourage your people to bring their expertise into these conversations. Nobody else knows their area of the business better than they do, so let them share their views on what’s happening.



It’s important to dissect what has happened and perform a post-mortem on your business to make sure that you don’t repeat the same mistakes. But it’s equally important to be focused on what happens next. When things go wrong in business, consider it an opportunity to take stock and determine whether you’re heading in the right direction. Decide whether your business could benefit from pivoting its focus to something else maybe one part of your product or service is proving popular even if the business as a whole isn’t working out. If that’s the case, re-focus your efforts on this aspect.



When everything goes wrong, it’s easy to forget why you got into business in the first place. But remind yourself why you were passionate about this project. As I’ve written before, no business will succeed if the only goal is to make money. Whenever we launch a new Virgin business, we look at how we can offer a product or service that’s truly different from what everyone else in the industry is offering. So during tough times, stop and think back to when you launched your startup. What was it that you wanted to achieve? Spend time with your team, discuss your goals, and revise them if necessary.



Remember that above everything else in your business, your staff should be No. 1. If your people are happy and engaged, customers will follow. I’ve spent much of my time during the past 40 years working out how we take care of our staff at Virgin. We have now set up many different initiatives to help our people enjoy a healthy work-life balance. At Virgin Management, for instance, this includes flexible working schedules, unlimited leave and shared parental leave. These programs have been successful, and they’re a great reminder that if you look after your people, they will look after your business.


As you mentioned, Elviss, your staff is your most important asset. Entrepreneurs are only as strong as the teams that surround them. But you need to make sure that you include them in conversations when times are tough. The people on the front lines of your business will often have the best ideas on how to improve things for customers.

Keep your staff focused on the future, rather than getting bogged down in what’s happening at the moment and remember, above all else, that a happy staff will lead to a successful business.


(Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at You can follow him on Twitter at To learn more about the Virgin Group: (Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to Please include your name, country, email address and the name of the website or publication where you read the column.)


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