Tackling Low Employee Morale

Last Updated May 2, 2007 7:19 PM EDT

Low morale can gradually destroy employees' commitment, hurt the product or service they offer, and alienate the clients and customers they serve. It has many sources—poor economic conditions, a clash of cultures following a merger or acquisition, bad management, or any number of other factors.

Poor morale is contagious. It may begin with one disaffected employee and broaden into a general malaise, or spread from department to department and finally infect the entire organization. Once poor morale has set it, identifying its sources becomes very difficult.

Insidious as it may be, poor morale is reversible. This checklist outlines some ways to deal with it.

What You Need to KnowHow can I deal with a bullying senior manager who's damaging team morale?

Arrange a meeting to explain the effects of his behavior on you and your team. If he has never received feedback on this problem, he may be willing to change his approach. You might suggest his messages to your team be channeled through you, or that you facilitate all team meetings the manager attends. In this way, you are more likely to get closer to the source of the problem and influence the outcome.

A recent organizational survey has resulted in employees expressing their bitterness and grievances. How can we restore equilibrium?

Organizational surveys, especially those conducted in a setting where morale is low, often turn ugly and political—even personal. Senior managers must take the criticism seriously and respond meaningfully to it. Their response should be published in acompany newsletter or magazine, on anintranet site, or through a series of meetings. They will also need to address some of the specific complaints immediately to reassure people that they have received the message.

Aren't "morale-boosting" parties just a waste of time and money?

That depends on how—and why—it is done. If it is simply done to paper over the cracks and keep people quiet for a while, then yes, it's an obvious ruse that will just perpetuate poor morale. However, if the company throws a party in the context of a cultural change and follows through with concrete changes, it could be a positive introduction to a new, brighter organizational attitude.

I've got the worst morale in my team—and I'm the manager! How can I get myself back on track?

You should address this issue immediately. If a vacation is out of the question, consider professional counseling, or sharing your concerns with a trusted coworker. We all become frustrated or angry from time to time and want to be reassured that we are appreciated. You may need to explain your circumstances to another senior manager, perhaps using a third party as a facilitator, in order to gain support for a fresh start. Be frank with your team about your poor morale, but take a positive approach and explain your plan for getting back on track, asking for their help. You will show that you are taking charge of your behavior, and also that you care about them and value their support.

What to DoConsult With Coworkers

If poor morale is adversely affecting your business and you do not know its cause, start by asking your staff. Many organizations regularly conduct surveys to get their employees' feelings and opinions. Ask people what tools or resources would make their work, and work environment, more satisfying, what expectations they have, and whether their wages and benefits are satisfactory. Ask if they think the internal communication system is working, and if the management style is too cumbersome, oppressive, or bureaucratic. You might also explore such areas as reward and recognition, and tangible ways for them to participate in the process of change.

Get to Know Your Team

On a local level, managers can play a big role in improving morale. Good managers get to know the people who report to them. This means listening to their thoughts and aspirations, valuing them for their particular skills and knowledge, and helping them develop their potential.

All too often, managers view their jobs as a series of strategic objectives, forgetting that people are not merely faceless cogs in an impersonal machine. By creating a culture of open, constructive feedback, you will make people want to play a part in moving the business forward. Employees who know you value them, will gain self-confidence. Their morale will improve, and their commitment will deepen. A positive environment with lots of praise for a job well done is a very satisfying place to work. It is the manager's job to create such an environment for his or her team.

Carry Out an Organizational Survey

An organization survey is designed to elicit employees' comments on the way a business is run, and can therefore give senior management a great deal to think about. Just the act of conducting a survey tends to raise employees' expectations, so there is no point in a company doing a survey at all unless it is prepared to address the findings. An organizational survey can be handled internally or can include an outside consultant to advise on the questions and format. Another, and perhaps the best, choice is to outsource the survey entirely. Outsourcing will provide you with an independent view that is not influenced by the prevailing culture in your own organization.

Surveys are usually conducted confidentially, allowing those who respond to give honest feedback without fear of repercussions. You may get some extreme comments or jokes, but these can be stripped out during the analysis so that common themes emerge.

Publish the results of the survey. Employees want to know whether their comments have been heeded and what the organization intends to do about them. The survey itself does not raise morale, only positive action on the part of the organization can do that. Too often organizations conduct surveys, and find, after analyzing the feedback, that they face a much greater challenge than they had anticipated. They sweep the results under the rug and hope no one will notice. This is more damaging than not doing the survey in the first place.

Put Together a Timetable for Change

When embarking a program of change, it is important to schedule intended actions or initiatives within a specific time frame. Early results can serve as the first boost to morale and will attract greater staff cooperation, so identifying some "quick wins," and implementing those immediately will show your commitment. Some elements of your program will take much longer, especially if your initiative encompasses complete organizational change. Fully publicize your plans, regularly post progress, and be sure to solicit feedback to see whether you are meeting employees' expectations.

Create a Framework

Interestingly, people often feel unmotivated as a result of a lack of organizational structure or discipline. They need to know where they fit in the wider scheme of things. A framework provides them with a system and the procedures for getting decisions made or for making special requests. This framework should

be flexible, but, at the same time, should include the means by which people can contribute to the success of the business.

As morale improves, structure and discipline become less important. This is not to say you should get rid of them altogether, just that in the long run you can put less emphasis on them.

What to AvoidYou See Your Team as Cogs in a Machine

In a high-pressure organizational setting, it takes an effort to remember that people bring their vulnerabilities and aspirations with them to work each day. Everyone responds to human understanding and connection, and to being treated as a set of individuals rather than as cogs in a machine. Managers who enjoy the people side of their job, and who believe they can reach everyone, seldom have trouble sustaining the morale of their team.

You Deny The Problem

Trying to cover up poor morale by denying its existence will only make things worse. You need to take some form of action—whether in the form of an organizational survey, a companywide meeting, or a series of focus groups designed to delineate the problem. Poor morale may not be an easy fix, but one or more of the initiatives mentioned above should clearly reveal the source and extent of the morale problem.

You Stop Trying Too Soon

Addressing morale is an ongoing process. Listening, consulting, and supporting your employees do not guarantee that morale will continue to be high. Doing so, however, can serve as an early-warning system and suggest necessary corrections should problems return. Some companies keep in touch with employees' opinions by conducting annual organizational surveys—a process that might benefit your organization.

Where to Learn MoreBooks:

Blencoe, Greg. How to Be an Effective Manager: A Basic Guide to Maximizing Employee Morale, Motivation, and Productivity. Chicago, IL: August Publishing, 2002.

Lundin, Stephen C., Harry Paul, and John Christensen. Fish!: A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results. New York: Hyperion, 2000.

Rye, David E. 1001 Ways to Inspire: Your Organization, Your Team, and Yourself. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press, 1998.

Web Site:

CCH Business Owner's Toolkit: www.toolkit.cch.com/text/P05_7100.asp