Are You Really Serious About Improving Morale?

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked is, “How can we improve morale?” Whether it’s because employees are heading for the exits at an alarming rate or because employee relations issues are becoming increasingly problematic, the question usually arises because someone in senior management asks HR to see what it can do to improve morale. It’s hard to find fault with a request to improve morale, since morale directly affects the bottom line through its impact on productivity, customer service (and therefore customer loyalty), turnover, absenteeism, and litigation. But while it’s hard to argue with the wisdom of wanting to improve morale, it’s easy to see where these good intentions go wrong. Are You Asking the Wrong Question? Here’s the problem: Most executives and HR professionals start off their quest to improve morale on the wrong foot. They doom their morale-building efforts from the beginning by asking the wrong question. The question asked usually goes something like this: “We need to improve morale. What program would you recommend that doesn’t cost much (or better yet, doesn’t cost anything)?” The way they frame this critical issue reveals two serious errors in perspective, and it offers a clue why morale might be a problem in the first place. The fact that the request includes the qualifier “doesn’t cost much” reveals the first perspective error. Not being willing to invest in a factor that so powerfully affects an organization’s success is evidence of a penny-wise, dollar-foolish mindset. Approaching the issue of improving employee morale from the perspective of, “We want to improve this critical driver of our success, but we don’t want to invest time and money in making it happen,” makes as much sense as saying, “We want to deliver world-class customer service, but we don’t want to invest in hiring the best people or taking the time and money to train them well.” It’s beyond illogical; it’s delusional. People who say they want to improve morale but aren’t willing to invest in it need to examine both their sincerity and their logic. In the words of pop culture icon Dr. Phil, they need to “get real.” Besides the problematic “penny-wise, dollar-foolish” mindset, such a request reveals a second perspective error: trying to solve an experiential problem with a material solution. In the typical request, the person sees the solution in the form of a program, as if just the right event, award ceremony, or fun little program will make a lasting change in morale. It won’t. Goodies, gimmicks, and gala events, on their own, don’t lead to high morale. Nor do any other quick-fix solutions. In fact, when such events and programs contradict workers’ daily experience of not being respected, valued, or appreciated, these approaches have just the opposite effect. They lead to an even more cynical, distrustful, and disengaged workforce. What does lead to high morale is an intrinsically rewarding work experience: a work experience where employees feel respected, valued, and appreciated; a work experience where employees get to be players and not just hired hands; a work experience where they get to make a difference. With such a work experience, employees don’t need to be bribed. They don’t have to be plied with goodies to make them want to come to work and do their best. Thus, the second critical perspective error that dooms the “goodies, gimmicks, and gala events” approach to failure is trying to solve what is fundamentally an experiential issue with material solutions (i.e. goodies and events). Morale problems are experiential problems; they’re a result of a negative or dissatisfying work experience, whether due to the actual job itself, one’s relationship with one’s boss, not having adequate training, or the myriad of other factors that affect morale. Because morale is a problem of an unsatisfying work experience, the answer is in changing the work experience. More specifically, the answer is in creating an intrinsically rewarding work experience, a work experience that itself is rewarding (not always fun, but rewarding). You don’t create such a work experience with one time events or material perks. Holding an Employee Appreciation Day, having casual Fridays, or giving employees hats and t-shirts with your company logo doesn’t create an intrinsically rewarding work experience. What does? Designing a work experience based on the plethora of research about which organizational factors, managerial practices, and human needs lead to an inspired, engaged workforce. Would You Use This Approach in Your Personal Life? Because the “goodies, gimmicks, and gala events” approach to improving morale is so prevalent, I want to risk belaboring this point by using an analogy that I hope makes it even more evident why it doesn’t work. Let’s translate this approach into a personal life application. Imagine the following scenario: A co-worker tells you his wife just told him she’s unhappy with their relationship. He doesn’t remember the exact reasons she stated, but he does remember her saying she’s not satisfied. He tells you he’s been thinking about what to do about this, and has come up with two possible solutions. He wants your feedback on which is better. His solutions? Either buy her a Mini Cooper or take her on a Caribbean cruise. If those are the solutions your colleague proposes, might you now have a few clues about why his wife isn’t happy in the first place? Although his level of cluelessness might sound absurd, it does illustrate the same thought process underlying the request for a morale-building program. In our marital example, instead of learning what relationship needs of his wife’s aren’t being met and working with his wife to create a marital experience where they are being met, your co-worker thinks his salvation lies in a material solution ó either the perfect material object (the Mini Cooper) or the perfect event (the Caribbean cruise). But material solutions or events don’t satisfy experiential needs. In our example, such experiential needs might include spending more time together, being listened to rather than talked at or ignored, being treated with respect and caring, etc. In the workplace, the need to feel that you make a difference, the need to be proud of your work and your employer, and the need for autonomy are just a few of the experiential needs that impact morale and productivity. If these experiential needs aren’t met, no material “solution” or event will make a difference. In Part 2 of this article series, I’ll examine four principles to guide your morale-building efforts. In the meantime, share this article with your management team. Use it as a catalyst for some honest self-examination and frank discussion. If you and your managers are willing to do that, you’ll be opening the door not only to higher morale, but the bottom line benefits it brings.

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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