A Different Take On Workplace Morale
Editor’s Note: This post is part of the series “Workplace Morale,” a weeklong effort co-hosted by Switch & Shift and the folks at SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership. Be sure to keep track of the series here and check out our daily e-mail newsletter. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.
There is a lot of talk about how to improve morale. Morale is simply a group’s s sense of positive belief in their work and the organization. Assuming there are solid work performance standards in place, more is better. Sadly, we too often think the answer is to simply give people stuff. We give them plaques, certificates, and other trinkets by the truckload. After we figured out that rewarding others was important a few decades back, we quickly began to over do it – and the trend persists today.
Surprisingly, the tactics that really work the best are often unaddressed in the popular dialogue about morale. I’ve been inside of hundreds of organizations and seen what they do up close. I’ve contributed to and studied the organizational literature. Based on my experience, here are the top three ways to maintain or increase employee morale: demonstrate purpose by connecting employees to the outcomes they support, never allow jerks to persist in the organization, and make sure leaders show a genuine understanding of sacrifice when needed.
The first approach is to create purpose by connecting employees to the outcomes they support. Creating a sense of purpose always trumps giving people things. You do this with verbal or written messages, pictures, audio, video, or live testimonials. If the team works in the back office processing mortgage loan applications, try connecting them to the people who successfully found new homes. A simple collage of pictures showing smiling families and their new homes can bring the work to life.
Testimonials are even better. I once saw a purchasing manager in the United States Air Force connect his team to the outcome they support in a way that created immediate purpose. One day, the manager called a huddle and gathered everyone around. In walked two US Air Force fighter pilots. They thanked the team for making them successful. They described their roles as pilots and the need to believe in the men and women who make their jobs possible. Their kind words made the work significant. It mattered. It had real purpose.
Next, remember, no jerks allowed. In sports, it’s been said that the best offense is a good defense. Well when it comes to morale, your efforts can’t be focused exclusively on the positive things you might do. You also need to ensure that negative matters don’t erode the effect of your positive efforts. Thus, jerks cannot be tolerated. I don’t care if the jerk is highly talented. Jerks kill chemistry on the team and chemistry trumps talent. Jerks who are allowed to persist will spread negative emotions like a virus and kill productivity in a hurry.
Try a three strikes rule with your jerks. Everyone has bad moments. If you see a real jerk moment, relax, contain the damage, talk to them. Strike one. If it happens again, talk more directly and dole out the proper consequence. Strike two. If they act up again, for the sake of your team, it’s strike three and they’re gone. Here’s your incentive. Jerks at work always multiply, one creating another. If you don’t manage the first one correctly, more will follow, so step up. I’ve seen more than one firm use some version of the three strikes rule. Guess what? After using it once, you’re not likely to need it again.
If you see a real jerk moment, relax, contain the damage, talk to them. Strike one. If it happens again, talk more directly and dole out the proper consequence. Strike two. If they act up again, for the sake of your team, it’s strike three and they’re gone.
Here’s the final tip for building morale: hire, promote, and highlight leaders who understand sacrifice. If a budget is cut, if sales fall, if a policy changes, if earnings are down, or if the industry somehow experiences turmoil and it’s going to affect the team – it should affect you too. When they have pay freezes, your pay should freeze. If there are pay cuts, yours should be bigger. When they have to work longer hours, you should work even more. When they truly believe you are right there with them elbow to elbow, they’ll be willing to sacrifice right along with you. Even in the face of difficult times, leaders who model the way often prevent big dips in morale.
I’ve seen many creative ways to sacrifice when needed: giving up preferred parking spots, canceling an executive perk such as a country club membership, refusing a bonus, and so on. Likely the most famous example involved Steve Jobs taking only $1 for his salary, every year from 1997 to 2011. When he returned to Apple after a twelve year absence the company was struggling and he wanted to show restraint, an understanding of sacrifice, and a belief in the future of the company. So only took one dollar.
Giving people stuff can be useful when the rewards are truly earned, but that approach still isn’t the best for building morale. Find creative ways to show people why the work matters, demonstrate no love for the negative nitwits who sometimes show up, and remember that when sacrifice is needed you should lead the way. When you do, you won’t have to worry about team morale.
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