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Time to Get Serious About Improving Morale

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked by managers is, “How can we improve morale?” Because morale affects every aspect of a company’s competitive advantage, it’s an important question to ask.

Business objectives that relate to your company’s success, such as increasing quality, productivity, and customer loyalty, while reducing turnover, absenteeism, and safety related costs, are all influenced by employee morale. Therefore, keeping morale high should be on every manager’s radar screen.

Four Strategies to Guide Your Morale-Building Efforts

1. Goodies, Gimmicks, and Gala Events Are the Frosting, Not the Cake. Perks and special events aren’t the solution to improved morale—nor are they a replacement for addressing the causes of low morale. They do, however, have a place in the overall approach as part of a larger effort.

Organizations known for having a great workplace, like Zappos, Southwest Airlines, and Google, frequently host a variety of fun events and special programs, and shower employees with various “goodies.”

These “goodies,” though, aren’t the reason for their high employee morale. These programs and perks work for these employers because they’re an honest representation of how management feels about, and treats, employees day in and day out. For these organizations, the fun programs are a manifestation of the ongoing relationship between labor and management, and an extension of their employees’ work experience.

Managers in these companies recognize that such programs and perks are the frosting on the cake, they’re not the cake. They understand that the cake is the work experience.

2. Managers Must Understand “It’s the Little Things That Matter—and Every Little Thing Matters.” The way to improve morale is not with a one time, dramatic display of appreciation. Morale is improved—or damaged—one interaction at a time. Every time employees interact with their manager, or with the organization, it’s a moment of truth.

Just as in customer service, each moment of truth affects how the organization is perceived. Each moment of truth matters, because the sum total of these moments determines how an employee feels about his or her employer.

So instead of focusing on onetime events and dramatic displays, your management team needs to “think small” by focusing on those simple day-to-day encounters that may seem insignificant, but which through their cumulative effect, determine morale. In the words of branding expert Scott Bedbury, you want your managers to understand that “everything matters.”

For example: It matters whether a manager notices the good things an employee does or just notices the mistakes. It matters whether a manager asks employees for their input before making a decision that impacts their daily work or just goes ahead and makes the change, expecting employees to “just deal with it.”

It matters whether managers get back to employees promptly about their requests or have to be repeatedly pursued for an answer. It matters whether managers say “Thank you” when employees go the extra mile or take it for granted. In short: “everything matters.”

All managers must be more focused on the many moments of truth that build or destroy morale. It’s important to help managers understand this for two reasons. First, with most people being overloaded with work, it’s natural for managers to sprint through the day without taking time to consider the impact of their interactions. “Everything matters” helps them remember the importance of paying attention to each interaction and giving it their best. Second, because most people are unlikely to give their boss negative feedback, many managers don’t realize the negative impact of mishandled moments of truth. They don’t receive evidence that everything matters.

When managers adopt “everything matters” as a mantra, it helps them become more alert to, and mindful of, the many little moments of truth each day brings, and increases the odds that the outcome of each will be morale-building.

3. Most of the Answers Are Within You and Your Workforce…So Ask. The key to improving morale in your company doesn’t come from the latest management fad. It doesn’t come from giving every employee copies of a famous author’s business book. The answer comes from you and your workforce. Because each company has a unique culture and a unique set of problems, no off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all quick fix will work.

Furthermore, trying to force a pre-packaged solution onto employees usually backfires. No one likes to have things forced on them; we do like to be involved in solving problems. Creating a “home grown,” customized solution for low morale, obviously requires finding out the causative factors. Rather than guess what they are, ask. Just as importantly, make sure you don’t ask unless you are truly willing to honestly address the issues. Most managers drop the ball at this step. They ask for input, employees give the input, and then nothing happens. The result? Decreased morale and trust; increased resentment and cynicism.

Doing this right means involving employees in generating solutions. Because “everything matters,” just the fact that you involve employees in coming up with solutions wins you “morale brownie points” and shows that you respect them. It also taps into the need to matter—to be a player and not just a hired hand, and the innate drive to solve problems, two factors that strongly impact morale.

4. Be Willing to Look in the Mirror—Especially If You’re at the Top. If there’s a morale problem, there’s a leadership problem. Unfortunately, when things aren’t going well, it’s human nature to look outside ourselves for the cause. If you’re a manager, especially a senior manager, have you asked yourself , “What am I doing that might be contributing to—or even driving—low morale?”

If you are contributing to low morale, chances are good that no one will tell you. Bosses don’t hear these things, because most employees realize criticizing their boss isn’t exactly the fast track to success. So bosses continue to act in ways that damage morale and then wonder why turnover is high or employee relations issues plague their company.

Because power often brings immunity from feedback, if you’re truly serious about improving morale you will need to actively seek out feedback and learn how to make it safe for people to respond honestly. There are many leadership assessment tools available that can yield useful information, including 360 degree survey tools, having HR or an external consultant interview people you deal with, and executive coaching.

Final Thoughts
Tell your staff you’re interested in improving morale and ask them what you can do together to do so. Emphasize the “together” part, so it’s clear that this is a team effort. Then make sure you integrate morale-enhancing strategies into your everyday managerial efforts. The result will be an inspired, engaged workforce.

About the Author(s)

David Lee  is a management consultant and speaker and the founder of HumanNature @Work (www.humannatureatwork). He is the author of Managing Employee Stress and Safety, as well as dozens of articles on employee and organizational performance that have been published in trade journals and books.