Are You Really Serious About Improving Employee Morale?

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked is “How can we improve morale?” because morale affects every aspect of a company’s competitive advantage, it is a critical question to ask.

Business objectives that relate to your company’s success, such as increasing quality, productivity, and customer loyalty, while reducing turnover, absenteeism, and safety related costs, are all influenced by employee morale.

In difficult times like the ones we are facing, when many employees are anxious and overwhelmed, it is more important than ever to know how to keep employee morale high and employees engaged — despite what’s going on in the world.

Knowing this will help you combat the negativity that can drag down a workforce and make it less productive, less capable of providing great customer service, and less adaptable to change.

Therefore, keeping employee morale high should be on every manager’s radar screen, and knowing how to do so a central part of their skill set.

Are you asking the wrong question?

Here is the problem, though: most managers 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. It usually goes something like this: “We need to improve morale. What program would you recommend that doesn’t cost much (or 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 (or anything)” reveals the first perspective error. They are focusing on cost, rather than the value of the outcome they are hoping to achieve.

Their unwillingness to invest in a factor — employee morale — that so powerfully affects their organization’s success is simply being “penny wise and dollar foolish.”

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.

Goodies, gimmicks don’t equal high morale

Besides the “penny wise, dollar foolish” perspective error, 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 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 a 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).

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You don’t create such a work experience with one time events or material perks. Holding an Employee Appreciation Day, having Dress Down Fridays, or giving employees company logo wear does not create an intrinsically rewarding work experience.

What does?

You create an intrinsically rewarding work experience by intentionally designing a work experience based on the plethora of research about which organizational and managerial practices have the biggest impact you’re your work experience so that it satisfies the human needs that lead to inspired, productive, continually motivated employees.

Would you use this 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 this approach fails.

To dramatize the folly of trying to solve an experiential issue with a material solution or an event, 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 does not remember the exact reasons she stated for her unhappiness, but he does remember her saying she’s unhappy and thinking about leaving.

“I’ve come up with my game plan,” he tells you, bursting with determination and optimism. “But, I need your feedback one which option is the best. I’m trying to decide whether to buy her a BMW, take her on a cruise, or remodel the kitchen. Which do you think would make her happier?”

Now, if those are his potential solutions, might you have some clues about why his wife isn’t happy?

Although his level of cluelessness might seem 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 aren’t being met and working with his wife to create a marital experience where they are being met, he thinks his salvation lies in a material solution.

Unfortunately for this well-intentioned but misguided husband — and well-intentioned but misguided employers — material solutions or events don’t satisfy experiential needs. In this example, such experiential needs might include spending more time together, being listened to rather than ignored or coached, being treated with respect and caring, etc.

In the workplace, the need to matter, the need to be proud of one’s work and employer, and the need for autonomy are 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.

Tomorrow, we’ll explore four principles you can use to guide your morale building efforts.

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," and Dealing with a Difficult Co-Worker, volume one of the Courageous Conversations at Work series, as well over 100 articles and book chapters.

You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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