Workplace morale is a major contributor to job satisfaction, productivity and performance
Workplace morale is a major contributor to job satisfaction, productivity and performance. When morale is high, employees tend to be engaged, committed and positive in outlook. And the effects show up as strong results. Conversely, when morale takes a beating, employees’ sense of wellbeing at work plummets and the flow-on costs to the organisation and our economy are high.
Given the upside potential and downside risks, workplace morale should stay high on management’s agenda. All too often though it gets taken for granted, with managers turning their attention to workplace morale only in response to signs that something is amiss; for example when the results of the annual employee survey are published and they indicate lowered morale.
On the other hand, managers in high performing organisations know that achieving and maintaining positive workplace morale demands a more proactive approach. These managers focus as much on building and maintaining great working conditions as they do on managing performance and meeting objectives.
Whether you’re interested in improving workplace morale or simply want to better understand the contributing factors, the place to start is with an understanding of the link between morale and employee motivation.
Morale and motivation
Organisational success depends on people feeling motivated to make their contribution. Workplace morale is a key influencer of people’s level of motivation.
Morale refers to the degree to which employees feel good about their work and their working environment. It includes:
- positive emotions experienced by people in their workplace;
- people’s enthusiasm for their work; and
- commitment to shared goals.
Motivation refers to a person’s capacity and willingness to perform. When morale is high people are far more likely to be willing to perform at their best. High levels of morale fuel people’s intrinsic motivation – the passion and enthusiasm for their work that comes from within. Intrinsically motivated people hold high expectations of themselves and others. Whilst extrinsic motivators such as reward and recognition are also important they rarely counteract low morale.
Symptoms and causes
Workplace morale is similar to personal health in that it can be tempting to treat the symptoms of a problem rather than look for underlying causes. Treating symptoms deals with the problem quickly and often comforts the initiator. It also avoids the possibility of learning that the problem is far greater than you assume.
By way of example a team leader believing the workload of a recently completed project to be the cause of her team’s despondency proposed a team night out funded by the company. She was surprised by the low take-up of the offer and later learned that the real cause of diminished morale was her failure to acknowledge people’s efforts throughout the project. A 360-degree feedback process later helped her make adjustments to her leadership style. She now makes sure to acknowledge team members’ efforts as well as challenging them to achieve more.
Common symptoms of lowered morale are:
- absenteeism at higher than normal levels;
- productivity lower than it should be;
- people experiencing stress and stress-related difficulties;
- conflicts escalating instead of being resolved; and
- complaints and grievances being aired frequently.
When managers treat symptoms such as these without first identifying underlying causes they do things like:
- single out individuals and put them on a performance improvement plan on the basis that dealing with the ‘bad apple’ will fix the morale problem;
- remind staff repeatedly about the externally provided employee assistance program;
- call in a mediator; or
- assume that everyone just needs cheering up.
Whilst any of these or similar responses might ultimately be appropriate and helpful enduring improvements in workplace morale require an in-depth analysis first to determine root causes. Before embarking on this it helps to have an appreciation of what contributes to high workplace morale.
Generally speaking workplace morale is boosted by:
- Trusting and respectful relationships between managers and staff;
- Robust formal and informal feedback processes which provide opportunities for people at all levels to learn how they are going compared with what is expected;
- Clear goals and measures of performance;
- Effective open communication which keeps people informed about workplace matters of importance to them;
- Opportunities for people to participate in decisions which will affect them;
- Policies systems and procedures that make sense and encourage high quality work outcomes; and
- Leaders in whom people have confidence.
Strong morale has a buoying effect on employees enabling them to deal with job demands and pressures far more effectively than is possible when morale is low.
The good news if you are tasked with improving morale is that a series of small steps is often far more effective than trying to improve morale through one massive show of appreciation or a costly pre-packaged ‘solution’. The key to sustainable improvements in morale is to first understand the root causes of lowered morale in your particular workplace.
Identifying root causes
The key to identifying the root causes of lowered workplace morale is to involve staff in the diagnosis and the process starts by asking people to provide input. Before making a start ask yourself these questions:
Are you able to listen to the answers without becoming defensive? (for more on this see the article ‘Credulous Listening‘)
Are you prepared to act on what you learn?
Are you ready to involve employees in generating solutions?
Are you willing to hear that YOU might be part of the problem?
It’s also important to think about whether people are likely to be willing to give you the truth as they see it – to speak honestly about their workplace experience what supports them to perform at their best and what gets in the way. In many settings where morale is low people fear the repercussions of providing honest feedback. If this describes your workplace then you need the help of an external consultant or HR specialist to assist with the diagnosis by obtaining the feedback you need whilst preserving staff anonymity.
Again by way of example by investing in this type of review a division manager came to an in-depth understand of what needed to change. People wanted her to spend more time building effective working relationships and to take a stronger leadership role by helping them see where the company was heading and their potential contributions. They also wanted her to do more coaching and less micro-managing. By acting on their feedback she rebuilt trust that had been lost by her predecessor with his ‘command and control’ style.
Looking for more ideas?
For readers with an interest in extending their reading about the topics covered in this article the following Management Insights articles and Management Guides are available on the website:
- The qualities of successful managers
- Motivation and the manager’s role
- Getting the best out of your team
- Staff engagement: what’s the bottom line?
- Employee involvement and participation (Management Guide)
About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and team dynamics through her company FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (http://www.fourleaf.com.au/). She facilitates strategic planning and team development undertakes organisational reviews coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.
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