High Morale meter

The Three C’s for Improving Employee 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.

Morale. Satisfaction. Engagement. Motivation. While these squishy terms represent attributes that are difficult to quantify with scientific precision, few would deny that organizations perform better if the people who deliver customer value and support the delivery of customer value are energized by their work. Smart leaders know that establishing the conditions that enable innovation and result in high levels of productivity paves the path to greater profit and market share. Even the most hardened command-and-control leaders sense that, to attract and retain a skilled and productive workforce, they have to create a workplace that people want to come to day after day after day. The notion makes intuitive sense and it’s backed up by plenty of research.

So why isn’t every organization filled with people who are highly engaged and seemingly satisfied? Ninety-nine percent of the people in an organization want to serve. They want to be part of something larger than themselves. They want to succeed. They want the organization to succeed. All of this desire is lying bare on a platter for an organization to either leverage or destroy.

All too often it’s destroyed.

For most workers, the answer doesn’t lie with salary and benefit packages; what time they start work; whether they work in cubicles, closed offices, or open space environments; or even whether they have a “best friend” at work. As I address in my book, The Outstanding Organization, the answer lies in basic human psychology. Instead of ignoring—or, worse—fighting innate needs, organizations can create deeply engaged, highly motivated workforces by creating work environments that provide for the three interconnected needs that all people have: connection, control, and creativity.


Human beings are hard-wired for connection. In fact, we require it. Yet many organizations are structured and operate in ways that create significant disconnects. Function-based departments are incented to focus on only their own work instead of connecting every move they make to upstream suppliers and downstream customers.

Most employees I ask have little idea what annual business goals they should be supporting, let alone what the organization’s true purpose is. And rarely do all departments or work teams in a value stream understand how they affect the customer experience. When an entire workforce is connected to purpose, annual business goals, the customer, and each other, they become deeply engaged, deeply fulfilled, and deeply committed to getting results.


The need for control is real, it’s human, and it’s often either ignored in business or it’s one-sided as in “command and control” leadership. People have an innate need to have control over the work they do. After all, the people who do the work are the experts. Not the people who manage the work. Not senior leaders. Not external consultants. Not internal black belts, green belts, or purple polka dot belts.

But all too often these parties mandate the nitty gritty details about how the work should be done. A work environment like this turns motivated experts to brainless robots and is a significant root cause for low morale and disengaged work teams. When, however, employees are given the opportunity to influence decisions, affect quality, and design the specific way in which they perform their work (within clearly-defined boundaries), they feel respected, valued, and inspired to give more.


As Maslow found and subsequent research has validated, human beings have an innate need to express their creativity in productive ways that benefit themselves and others. In the workplace, all too often people’s ideas for solving problems and improving how work is done—and offering to more fully utilize their skills and experience—are met with indifference, resistance, or even ridicule. The problem is magnified in environments where workers are “boxed in” by over-specialized roles and responsibilities. Yet these are the work conditions that greet millions of workers across the globe every day when they arrive to do a good day’s work.

Drawing on the creative potential of every employee to solve problems and make continuous improvement not only creates an energized workforce that’s committed to doing more, but it also accelerates the speed at which an organization can achieve capture greater market share, become more profitable, and fulfill its ultimate purpose.

Organizations that want to create work environments that provide for high degrees of connection, control, and creativity that, in turn, generate outstanding business results, need to make three foundational shifts:

1. Become very, very clear about your organization’s purpose and communicate it over and over.

Mission speaks to what you do. Purpose speaks to why you do it. Take your leadership team to an offsite–with or without Board involvement—and hash it out. WHY are you in business? What customer problems do your goods and services solve? Once purpose is clearly defined, communicate it broadly, deeply, repeatedly and frequently, and in as many ways as you have the means to communicate it.

2. Change the way you onboard new employees.

Most orientation programs are too short and are poorly delivered. People are flung into new roles without any sense of connection to an organization’s purpose, its customers, other departments and work teams, and the specific work they were hired to do.

Onboarding/orientation needs to be a full-immersion experience where every new hire, no matter what his/her role is, witnesses organizational purpose being played out firsthand and customer value being delivered. Yes, connection-producing onboarding and orientation takes time and resources. But if you want high morale, you need to set the conditions for that to occur from day one.

3. Change the way you establish priorities and solve problems.

Outstanding organizations use an approach known as strategy deployment for prioritizing the work it needs to do to fulfill its strategic plan. All employees from the frontlines to senior leaders participate in the decision-making process until consensus is reached and the priorities are finalized. Strategy deployment is a proven way to deeply connect every person to the mission at hand, provide for the control needs all human have, and leverage the experience and creativity that reside within each worker.

Take some time today to examine the work environment you’ve created. Does it honor and leverage every person’s innate needs or does it ignore them, disavowing basic human psychology? Whether you’re a fan of Dr. Phil or not, one of his “life laws” carries an undeniable truth: we teach people how to treat us. The business version of this law is that organizations teach workers how to behave—from day one. Outstanding organizations such as Menlo Innovations, Toyota, and W.L. Gore are a handful or organizations who’ve established work environments that are highly respectful of humanity and play on basic psychology. Use the three C’s to do the same in your organization and watch your workforce morale and engagement scores soar!


Editor’s note: To connect with Karen: www.ksmartin.com

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Copyright: alexmillos / 123RF Stock Photo

Karen Martin is the Shingo Prize winning author of The Outstanding Organization, where she addresses how companies can reduce the organizational chaos they create for themselves. She is a leading authority on business performance improvement and a highly-regarded speaker who wows her audiences with practical takeaways. After serving as the Director of Quality for a firm that managed 22 million Americans’ healthcare, and building and managing three operations with triple-digit annual growth, Karen started her own consulting firm to help businesses achieve the same levels of performance her teams were able to achieve. Karen has worked with clients in nearly every industry, including Chevron, the U.S. Navy, Franklin Templeton Investments, Hallmark Cards, Intel, Mayo Clinic, Goodwill Industries, and GlaxoSmithKline. She teaches at the University of California, San Diego and is an Industry Advisor for the University of San Diego’s Industrial and Systems Engineering program.

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