Are You Really Serious About Improving Morale? Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, we examined the ill-conceived and irrational hope that you can improve employee morale with just a program. Whether “program” means a half-day seminar on morale, a company picnic, or a process for handing out goodies like t-shirts and mugs with your company logo on them, such approaches are not the answer to building employee morale. What they typically do, instead, is lead to an increasingly cynical and disenfranchised workforce, who see management as not “getting it.” In this segment, we’ll examine four real principles you can use to guide your morale building efforts. Goodies, Gimmicks, and Gala Events Are the Frosting, not the Cake Although goodies, gimmicks, and gala events aren’t the solution to improved morale, they do have a place in morale-building efforts. They’re appropriate when done as part of a larger effort, when they don’t replace the hard work that needs to take place. Organizations known for having a great workplace frequently put on a variety of fun events and special programs, often showering employees with various goodies. These programs and perks work for them because they’re an honest representation of how management feels about, and treats, employees day in and day out. Managers in these companies recognize that such programs and perks are the frosting on the cake, and not the cake itself. They understand that the “cake” is their employees’ work experience. For these organizations, generous perks, gala events, fun programs are a congruent manifestation of the ongoing relationship between labor and management, and a congruent extension of their employees’ work experience. Returning to the example from Part 1 of giving a partner a special gift, if the relationship isn’t good, such a gift is seen as missing the point (“I don’t want an expensive gift. I want to spend time together!”) and perhaps even a transparent manipulation. But if that special gift is a natural expression of a special relationship, it both communicates and strengthens the good in the relationship. As you develop a strategy to improve morale, don’t make goodies, gimmicks, and gala events the centerpiece of your strategy. See these things for what they are: the frosting, not the cake. It’s the Little Things, and Every Little Thing Matters Morale is not improved by a one-time, dramatic display of appreciation. Morale is improved ó or damaged ó one interaction at a time. Every time employees interact with their manager, it’s a moment of truth. Every time they interact with their employer, whether in the form of a company-wide policy or communication, it’s a moment of truth. Just as in customer service, each moment of truth affects how the organization is perceived. The sum total of these moments of truth determine how the employee feels about his or her employer. Each moment of truth matters. Thus, instead of focusing on one time events and dramatic displays of concern and appreciation, your management team needs to think small. They need to focus on those simple day-to-day encounters, which, although they might seem insignificant, through their cumulative effect do in fact determine morale. In the words of branding expert Scott Bedbury, you want your managers to understand that “everything matters.” It matters whether a manager notices the good things an employee does or just notices their 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 instead just take it for granted. In short, everything matters. Every manager needs to 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. The phrase “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, managers never realize the negative impact of mishandled moments of truth. Because they don’t get that feedback, they don’t receive evidence that everything matters. Thus, by helping managers make “everything matters” 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 instead of morale-destroying. Most of the Answers Are Within You and Your Workforce The answer to improving morale in your company doesn’t come from the latest management fad. It doesn’t come from giving every employee copies of Who Moved My Cheese or making them watch a Fish! video. The answer comes from you and your workforce. Because each company has a unique culture and a unique set of problems that cause diminished morale, no off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all, quick-fix solution will address the unique challenges and needs your organization faces. Furthermore, trying to force a pre-packaged solution onto employees usually backfires. No one likes to have things forced on them. We do, however, like to be involved in solving problems. Creating a homegrown, customized solution for low morale obviously requires finding out the causative factors. Rather than guessing what they are, just ask. Just as importantly, make sure you don’t ask unless you are truly willing to do something with the feedback you receive. Doing something with the feedback doesn’t mean inviting employees to give you a big wish list of what they want and then having management scurry about trying to figure out how to grant every wish. Doing something with the feedback means honestly considering the issues raised, differentiating between critical themes and idiosyncratic complaints, fixing the problems that are leading to low morale, and keeping employees apprised of the status of the various issues you’re examining. I like what they do at Stonyfield Farm, the New Hampshire yogurt company, to keep employees apprised of issues raised. They post a chart that lists various employee issues and suggestions and indicates where in the process each issue currently is, whether it’s waiting to be explored, being researched, being implemented, or not going to be implemented and why. Addressing the factors leading to low morale also means involving employees in generating solutions. Because everything matters, just the fact that you involve employees in generating solutions wins you at least a few morale brownie points. Involving employees in coming up with solutions shows you respect them. It taps into people’s need to matter ó to be a player and not just a hired hand ó as well as the innate drive to solve problems, two factors that strongly impact morale. Be Willing to Look in the Mirror If there’s a morale problem, there’s a leadership problem. The problem is, 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 ó or even driving ó low morale?” If you yourself are contributing to low morale, chances are good that no one has told you that you are. Most employees realize criticizing their boss isn’t exactly the fast track to success. Thus most bosses never hear about the many things they inadvertently do that frustrate, annoy, anger, and alienate their staff. They continue to unwittingly damage morale, and wonder why they’re plagued by high turnover or employee problems. Because power brings immunity from feedback, you will need to actively seek out feedback if you’re truly serious about improving morale. You will need to ask for feedback and learn how to make it safe for people to respond honestly. Approaches and tools that can yield useful information include the many leadership assessment tools available, 360-degree survey tools, having HR or an external consultant interview people you deal with, and executive coaching. Conclusion If you want to improve employee morale, remember that goodies, gimmicks, and gala events are not the answer. They’re the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. The cake is an intrinsically rewarding work experience. To find out how you can create an intrinsically rewarding work experience, ask your employees. Then work together with them to make it a reality. You can also learn how to create a more intrinsically rewarding work experience by applying the wealth of information now available about what factors and practices make the biggest difference in terms of employee morale and productivity.

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David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 60 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at