When we think of ways to improve employee morale, we often think of passing out cheesy tchotchkes with smiley faces on them (solidly branded with our company logo, of course).
Tchotchkes are fun, but they don’t work. They may provide some happy-fuzzy feelings for a bit, but those little stress balls and key chains, on their own, aren’t going to impact profitability, turnover, absenteeism, product and service quality, theft and shrinkage, productivity, customer satisfaction, or safety. They won’t provide long-term engagement; they won’t spur motivation; they won’t spark change. In short, they won’t improve employee morale.
What will work? What makes people want to be at work, be effective, be productive, and build relationships that go deeper than professional courtesy?
Change must come from the top. Engagement must come from the top. Morale is shaped at and shared from the top.
In the article Leading Engagement from the Top, Sangeeta Agrawal, a Gallup Consultant, said, “Engagement comes from leaders. People look to leadership to set the tone and expectations. Leaders make engagement important. If executives don’t set the stage and practice what they preach about engagement, it’ll be harder for others to follow.” Now, you might be thinking, “But wait, I thought we were talking about employee morale,” and we are. Engagement and morale go hand in hand.
Employee morale is defined as “the emotions, attitude, satisfaction, and overall outlook of employees during their time in a workplace environment.” According to Kim Lancaster, a certified Recognition Professional, “The state of an employee’s attitude directly relates to how they will perform on the job. If an employee feels underappreciated, overworked, and de-valued, what is their motivation and incentive to excel? There is none. Low employee morale breeds employee disengagement.”
If your workforce is disengaged, will they still report to work and do their job? Isn’t their paycheck motivation enough? Yes, but only to a point. We humans are motivated to satisfy needs, and money isn’t actually a need. It is a means to an end. Money can satisfy Maslow’s lower levels (physiological and safety needs), but it doesn’t affect the higher levels of need.
Money doesn’t provide us with a sense of achievement, it doesn’t help us to feel valued, involved, or challenged. It doesn’t help us to feel engaged. And that’s important for businesses to recognize because unengaged workers cost the U.S. an estimated $450 to $550 billion annually, as reported by Gallup.
So, if our businesses are losing billions of dollars due to low morale, and low morale leads to low engagement, and engagement comes from leaders, then we know we need some actionable ways for leadership to create a corporate culture of engagement. Here, then are three proven strategies to improve employee morale.
1. Empower Mid-level Managers With Coaching
Coaching sounds scary, right? It sounds like a major investment and an ongoing challenge. But, a Gallup study revealed significant boosts in team engagement when managers received just one hour of strengths coaching.
Strengths coaching involves helping people discover what they are best at and how they can use those strengths to be better at their jobs. Peter Drucker, the thought leader and legendary business consultant on whose ideas the Drucker Institute was founded, said, “Most people think they know what they are good at. They are usually wrong… And yet, a person can perform only from strength.”
2. Provide Team Members with Flexibility in Their Jobs
Change is a constant in business, as in all areas of life. Change is stress. Stress causes friction, pressure, and a host of other problems. Change-management is the practice of helping team members adapt to, and benefit from, change. Change management, as a practice, has a lot to do with fostering engagement; for one thing, it involves querying the workforce to discover pain points, and then getting employee buy-in on how to move forward. One key component of change management is the incorporation of flexibility (the ability to adapt and respond to change). From an employee-morale perspective, flexibility has two components: accountability, and authority.
In the book The Power of Personal Accountability, authors Mark Samuel and Sophie Chiche discuss how the practice of accountability empowers individuals to get more done, finish ongoing projects, take on new challenges, and set and achieve new goals. Accountability involves accepting personal responsibility and then taking actions to get where you want to be. Accountability allows each team member to take on a role in adapting to change. Accountability, when practiced on a wide-scale organizational level, gives employees freedom to do their best, because they know that everyone else is also doing their best, and so each individual’s efforts are a worthwhile component of a viable whole.
Authority is the power to make decisions and take corresponding actions. Authority allows each team member to redefine the scope of their work (in response to change). Every team member has some form of responsibility, but without authority, responsibility is a burden rather than a privilege. An employee with authority to make change is an employee motivated to do better work.
Accountable employees, given the authority to respond to changes within the scope of their own duties, are engaged employees. They strive for success and, accordingly, positively impact the bottom line.
3. Offer Company-wide Opportunities for Team Building and Fun
Stress relief. Maybe that’s what we’re aiming for with those little logoed stress balls, but there is a better way. Team building provides employees with the skills, training, and resources to work in harmony. As part of an overall employee morale initiative, team building experiences work best when they are integral to the organization’s culture; that is, they are not a one-time, quick fix.
To make team building a part of organizational culture, team building events should have SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) goals. For example, team building exercises can be catered to serve different needs, including resolving conflict, building relationships, communicating effectively, moving past change resistance, and boosting morale. Once a goal is defined, look for ways to measure the goal — even a simple employee survey can provide valuable insight into the effectiveness of the exercise.
To that end, team building exercises should be peppered throughout your fiscal year, and can be incorporated into other corporate initiatives and coupled with other line items, such as a wellness program, holiday party, or summer barbecue.
You can further boost engagement by actively soliciting employee ideas, and also by sharing the results so employees have a tangible understanding of the greater impact produced by all this fun. Think of this as a part of an accountability loop — it affirms for people that they are a relevant part of a culture that fosters and expects accountability. You are accountable to your people just as much as they are accountable to you and to one another.
It’s Worth the Effort to Improve Employee Morale
Employee morale is multi-faceted and complex, but boosting morale doesn’t have to be complicated. Whether you are noticing the effects of low morale, or you want to improve employee morale in order to avoid all the pitfalls and problems that come when it falls, there are many ways your organization can raise employee attitude, outlook, and expectation.
Start from the top, communicating leadership’s belief that employees are the company’s greatest asset, and then prove that belief by helping team members to be and do their very best. Provide coaching, flexibility, and team building opportunities, and watch your company thrive.