Virtually everyone seems to agree that great organizations generally have high morale. After all, when morale is high, the employees tend to have more energy and greater focus on achieving the organization’s goals. Conversely, when morale is low, employees seem to have less energy and spend more of their time complaining, looking for other jobs and/or simply trying to protect themselves. In short, when morale suffers, performance suffers because employees devote far less time towards delivering results.
Of course, developing and maintaining high morale among the troops is not an easy thing to do. Almost anyone who has been in management would probably agree with that statement. There are always a million things that can seemingly go wrong, so how does one go about improving morale? To me, the best way to do this is to follow a few simple, relatively basic principles which I believe are the keys to successful morale.
Before I describe them, let me make one thing clear. In my opinion, morale is usually a function of leadership. That is, good leaders do the right thing and as a result, people want to follow them and are committed to accomplishing the mission, goals and objectives. On the other hand, bad leaders tend to do the expedient thing, and everybody knows that, resulting in employees who merely follow orders and are compliant, but not committed.
The Keys to Improving Morale
So what are some of the principles or keys I just alluded to? In my view, they fall into a few basic categories as follows:
- Your philosophy
- How well you communicate
- Your management systems and how well you apply them
- The employee dynamics
- Your skill at dealing with difficult employees
Let me briefly explain how doing well in each of these areas can help improve morale.
Your philosophy – If you believe in your employees and trust them to do a good job, they will deliver the goods for you. Conversely, if you think your employees are simply there to collect a paycheck and must be carefully watched and controlled, they will quickly get the message and do nothing more than what is in their job description. In essence, your philosophy will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Remember, nobody is stupid and everyone quickly knows where you are coming from. If you treat your employees well, they will work well for you.
How well you communicate – The more you communicate with the employees, the more they will understand what is going on and why and will trust you and deliver what you are looking for. On the other hand, the less you communicate with the employees, the more they will be suspicious of your motives and spend time around the water cooler telling stories about management’s inadequacies. I strongly encourage you to communicate as frequently as you can and in a whole brain fashion (i.e. communicate orally, in writing, using charts and graphs, showing videos, etc.) After all, since people have different learning styles, it stands to reason that you want to use different means of communication to reach as many employees as possible.
Also, make sure the communication is two-way. That is, listen to your employees. After all, who knows better about how to improve things than the people who do the work? Moreover, if people feel that management wants to hear what they have to say, they will feel valued and become more engaged.
Your management systems and how well you apply them – The more your systems are aligned and give a consistent message, the more your employees will understand where you are coming from and focus their energies on the areas you want them to. However, if your systems provide contradictory messages (e.g. you say quality is important but only reward high output, regardless of quality), the employees will become confused and their energies and focus will be drained. The key is how you apply your systems. That is, the more your systems provide reliable consequences for outstanding, average and poor performance and behavior (i.e. top performer get rewarded, average performers retain their jobs and action is taken to deal with poor performers), the more your employees will follow your management systems, because they will know the systems are meaningful and are properly applied.
The employee dynamics - the employee dynamics are generally a function of the way they are treated. It doesn’t take a lot of skill or energy to treat people with respect and dignity. However, more often than not, employees feel they are not being treated well, so whenever a manager applies the golden rule and treats them in the way he would want to be treated, employees immediately respond in a positive manner.
How often have you seen a manager tell employees they she has an open door policy and then ignore the employees whenever she sees them in the hallways? How frustrating is it when a manager doesn’t remember your name or ask you how you are feeling after you have been out sick? The point here is if you treat your employees the way you want to be treated, they will respond in kind, the dynamics will improve and so will morale.
Your skill at dealing with difficult employees – one of the things that frustrates employees the most is when management does not deal with poor performers and/or people who misbehave. In my experience, employees despise working next to someone who doesn’t pull his weight and yet gets the same salary, performance appraisal and bonus. When this happens, people conclude that management is not serious about outstanding performance since they are willing to tolerate poor performance. Every day that a poor performer sits on the job, does not make a meaningful contribution and continues to get the same pay and benefits as the people who are working as hard as possible, it is going to rub employees the wrong way and set a bad tone.
Always first try and turn a poor employee around; after all, that is the right thing to do. However, if the employee’s performance is still unacceptable, deal with her; do not simply move her around. While there will undoubtedly be some short term pain, the vast majority of employees will appreciate your reactions and respect you for doing the right thing and the organization will profit in the long term.
If you apply the principles as described above, morale will undoubtedly improve. None of this is rocket science; it is merely common sense. Morale is a function of the way management communicates with and treats its employees so if you want high morale, make a concerted effort to improve communication and the way that you treat your workforce.