Four Principles to Help Guide Your Employee Morale Building Efforts

The goal in my article yesterday (Are You Really Serious About Improving Employee Morale?) was to challenge you to examine how serious and realistic you are if you say you want to improve employee morale.

If you spend your time and effort or practices that don’t work, not only will you have wasted your precious resources, you will also increase employee cynicism and skepticism (“There they go again with a flavor of the month management fad.”)

I also explored the insanity of wanting to improve employee morale and reap the bottom line benefits of a highly engaged, motivated workforce, but not being willing to invest in such an enterprise. People who say ,“We need to improve employee morale…anybody have any good ideas about how to do that, that don’t cost anything?” are totally out of touch with the cost of low employee morale and engagement and what it takes to have high employee morale and engagement.

Today, I will examine four principles for you and your management team to keep in mind as you explore this issue of improving morale by creating an intrinsically rewarding work experience.

Goodies, gimmicks, & gala events are frosting, not the cake

Although goodies, gimmicks, and gala events aren’t the solution to improved morale, they do have a place in the overall approach. They’re appropriate when done as part of a larger effort and when they’re not done instead of creating a satisfying, meaningful, challenging work experience.

Organizations known for having a great workplace frequently put on a variety of fun events and special programs, and often shower 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, they’re not the cake. They understand that the “cake” is the work experience.

For these organizations, their 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 I gave of about  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 more time together!”).

Such a gift can also be seen as a transparent manipulation (“You think I’m going to forget what you did because you gave me this ring?”). But, if that special gift is a natural expression of a special relationship, it both communicates and strengthens the specialness of that relationship.

Therefore, as you develop a strategy to improve morale, don’t make goodies, gimmicks, and gala events the centerpiece or the foundation of your strategy. See them for what they are: the frosting, not the cake.

Moment of Truth: “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 – or damaged – one interaction at a time. Every time employees interact with their manager, it is a Moment of Truth. Every time they interact with their employer, whether in the form of a company-wide policy or communication, it is a Moment of Truth.

In customer service, each Moment of Truth affects how a customer feels about the company they are doing business with, and whether they will continue to do business with them. In the workplace, the sum total of these Moments of Truth determine how employees feels about their employer. Thus, 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 that might seem insignificant, but through their cumulative effect, shape how employees feel about—and their opinion of—their boss and their employer. In the words of branding expert Scott Bedbury, you want your managers to understand that “everything matters.”

Those “little” Moments of Truth REALLY matter

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 simply take it for granted.

In short: ”Everything Matters.”

Therefore, if you want to improve employee morale, all managers must be mindful of the many Moments Of Truth that build or destroy morale.

How to help your managers help you improve 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. “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 — not morale damaging.

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Most answers are within you and your workforce — so ask

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 causing 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 like to be involved in solving problems.

Creating a “home grown” customized solution for low morale, obviously requires finding out the causative factors. Rather than guess what they are, ask. Just as importantly, make sure you don’t ask unless you are truly willing to honestly address them.

Most managers drop the ball at this step. They ask for input, employees give the input, and then nothing is ever done with the input.

The result? Decreased morale and trust; increased resentment and cynicism.

Doing this right also means involving employees in generating solutions. Because Everything Matters, just the fact that you involve employees in generating solutions wins you “morale brownie points.” Doing so shows you respect them. It also taps into the need to matter — to be a player and not just a hired hand — and the innate drive to solve problems, two factors that strongly impact morale.

Look in the mirror – especially if you’re at the top

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 are a manager, especially a senior manager, have you asked yourself “What am I doing that might be contributing to — or even driving — low morale?”

If you are contributing to low morale, chances are good that no one has told you this.

Bosses don’t hear these things, because 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 diminishes employee morale. Thus, they continue to do things that damage morale, and wonder why turnover is high or employee relations issues plague their company.

Because power usually 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.

To summarize …

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. The cake is an intrinsically rewarding work experience.

  1. Remember that goodies, gimmicks, and gala events are the frosting, not the cake. If you rely on bribing employees with goodies, the latest management fad, or fun events as the basis of your employee morale building efforts, you are guaranteed to fail. Those are the “frosting.” The “cake” is an intrinsically rewarding work experience. If you want high employee morale, learn how to create such a work experience.
  2. Make sure all managers understand “it’s about the little things, and every little thing matters.” The more mindful your managers are about the so called “little things” that affect employee morale and engagement, the more they better they can play their central role in fostering a motivated, productive, engaged workforce. While it’s important for managers to remember that Everything Matters, it is also important for them to be especially mindful of the most critical managerial Moments of Truth such as how they handle giving feedback, asking for employee input, and dealing with manager-employee conflict over management style.
  3. Most of the answers are within you and your workforce — so ask. Rather than force a pre-packaged “morale boosting” program on your employees, find out from them what issues and obstacles keep them from performing at their best and being excited about helping their employer succeed. Use this, and knowledge of the key factors that lead to high employee morale and engagement, to design — with active employee involvement — an intrinsically rewarding work experience.
  4. Be willing to look in the mirror, especially if you’re at the top. While it is human nature to focus on other people and what they should be doing differently, if you’re experience low morale, you need to look in the mirror — especially if you’re the head of the organization. In some organizations with low morale, the leader inadvertently acts in ways that shows disrespect or acts in other ways that are demotivating to employees, and never realizes it because he or she gets no feedback. In others, the leader is respectful and inspiring, but does not hold other managers to the same standards, and so bad behavior is being tolerated…leading to low morale. Whatever the case may be, for morale to turn around and employee engagement to increase, managers at ALL levels must be willing to get feedback.

Doing this will obviously take time, energy, work, and resources. If you’re serious about reaping the benefits of high employee morale, you’ll recognize it’s worth all of that. Just ask Southwest Airlines, Ritz Carlton, Zappos, Disney, and Baptist Healthcare System.

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, or follow him on Twitter at