1 May 2007

Change morale, improve productivity

By Tomesah Harrison

Managers cannot overlook employee morale when evaluating a team's success or productivity. Although it is often difficult to measure and takes several data points to gauge its impact, when morale is low, you feel it.

Gone are the days when employers can ignore the interests and commitment levels of their employees. A war for talent is overshadowing loyalty and longevity with one company. This war incites employees to shop around for the organization that best caters to their needs. As a result, taking time to understand and connect with employees is critical and expected.

Unfortunately, low morale is contagious and can spread like a cancerous cell through a team or organization. The good news is you can treat it. Keeping morale high and employees positive should be at the top of every leader's list. Do not just count on short-lived programs, bonuses, or ice-cream breaks to change morale in your team. Make it an everyday practice.

David Lee, a consultant, speaker, and executive coach out of Bar Mills, Maine, offers a quick check list, called the Top Three, managers can use on a daily basis to make sure they're contributing to high morale:

  • Notice when your people do something well and tell them about it.
  • Listening cultivates respect. Do not just talk at employees; listen to their ideas, concerns, and opinions.
  • Show more appreciation. Appreciation is the biggest motivator for employees. Managers who do not express appreciation sow the seeds of discontent and disengagement.

Research on low morale

You have heard the saying employees leave managers, not companies. Now, research is backing that claim. A study by the Corporate Leadership Council in 2003 reveals managers have a tremendous impact on an employee's level of commitment. In fact, more than 70% of their commitment is based upon manager interaction. We have all probably endured at least one manager in our career with less than desirable characteristics that have frustrated us or did not make us feel valued. Unfortunately, this disconnect yields thousands of hours of lost productivity and results in employees feeling disconnected from their daily work and the organization as a whole.  In turn, managers should be viewed as intricate when measuring employee satisfaction.

Improving morale is good for business. The Gallup Organization estimates there are 22 million actively disengaged employees costing the American economy up to $350 billion per year in lost productivity, including absence, illness, and other problems that result when workers are unhappy at work. Leaders who keep their employees involved, engaged, and connected are ultimately improving business performance through their people. Employees want to believe their ideas are being heard and want to feel empowered to make decisions and changes in the workplace.  Taking time to build relationships with employees through personal interactions is a key step managers can take to keep morale high.

Employees can take action

Improving morale is not just up to managers. Employees can take a proactive stance in changing the emotional landscape of their work environment. Lee said engineers can empower themselves by playing to their analytical abilities and asking what is contributing to their own low morale, which ones they can influence, and what is within their control related to the problem. "You can decide what you choose to do, and avoid doing, that would increase their abilities to positively influence the situation," Lee said. One route would be to talk with your manager about how giving you more breathing room would increase your productivity and ability to innovate.

Some situations might lie outside your control. Say your department is understaffed, which is leading to inordinately high work loads, and senior management has declared this is how it is going to be for the next year. In such a case, you can recognize the situation is unchangeable. "But you can control how you think about it and how you choose to respond," Lee said. Try to offer possible solutions when you bring up a problem. "Given how busy most managers are, your bringing a problem to them, regardless of how valid it is, is just another thing to add to their load. Suggesting solutions shows you aren't trying to dump it in their lap. Acknowledge their demands, pressures, and backbreaking workload before bringing up an issue," he said. Some managers might feel like their subordinates have no appreciation for what they deal with. "Because of the law of reciprocity, your willingness to empathize with their challenges will likely increase their willingness to listen to yours," Lee said.

If your manager has a problem communicating effectively, recognize they might not know how to bring up and talk about difficult issues constructively, so they avoid them until they boil over. "Make it easy for your manager to bring up things that are bothering him or her or give corrective feedback by asking for it directly," Lee said. "Try something like, 'I want to make sure I'm on track with what I'm doing on this project,  and my job in general; is there anything I need to change or improve on, in your opinion, or is everything okay with you?' "

About the Author

Tomesah Harrison is a human resources leader at the Durham Engine Facility of GE Transportation in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

10 ways to improve morale during times of difficulty

By David Lee
  1. Let employees express their feelings about the difficulties and changes that are going on. Telling them they need to move on and get over it will only foster anger and resentment, or result in employees becoming disengaged.
  2. Don't focus all your efforts on getting buy-in to the changes you seek. People need to know you understand their perspective and their feelings before they will listen to your exhortations.
  3. Support constructive criticism. Make it safe for employees to express dissent or criticism without being labeled as not being a team player. Ignoring this will create a workforce that learns not to care.
  4. Give employees many opportunities to solve problems and take constructive action, the strongest antidote to fear and feeling helpless.
  5. Establish and communicate clear short-term goals to build confidence and a sense of purpose.
  6. Amp up your communication, giving details about what is going on each step of the way. When people feel vulner-able, their tolerance for ambiguity decreases.
  7. When talking about your vision and challenges, use stories and analogies, rather than PowerPoint slides filled with statistics and facts. Great leaders are masters at inspiring people through compelling stories.
  8. Make sure you are wired into the voice of your internal customers through employee advisory groups, presidents' breakfasts, team meetings, and focus groups. You will get valuable feedback to form effective strategies for executing and communicating changes.
  9. When asking for employee input and ideas, clearly define the parameters of their input.
  10. Celebrate victories and examples of excellence during difficult times; it is important especially then for employees to feel like winners.
About the Author

David Lee is a consultant, speaker, and executive coach, the founder of HumanNature@Work, and author of Managing Employee Stress and Safety. Contact him at humannature@work.com.