What to Do When Employee Morale is in the Tank

Low Morale
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My mood varies from day-to-day. It’s influenced by the amount of sleep I had, the weather, the things that happened during day, and a host of other factors. You too, right?

I’m not too concerned when I have a bad day or even a bad week.

If weeks become months or years, then I start to pay attention and take action.

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As a manager, you can take the same approach with your employees. A bad day or week isn’t a big deal. Chalk it up to random variation, and keep an eye on it.

When there’s a noticeable downward shift, it’s time to act. You’ll need a plan and plenty of persistence. I’m here to offer the former. You’re responsible for the latter. Here’s a 6-step approach to tackle the problem.

  1. Acknowledge the problem.
  2. Find the root cause(s).
  3. Create a vision for an energizing work environment.
  4. Identify concrete actions to move towards the vision.
  5. Reinforce progress.
  6. Weed out those who hold you back.

Step 1: Acknowledge the problem

It’s easy to ignore the problem and hope it goes away. If morale is in the tank, it isn’t likely to improve on its own. This sort of thing often feeds on itself and gets worse over time.

You might justify ignoring the problem with, “Well at least they’re still doing their jobs. That’s the main thing.” Better yet, you could go all hard-liner and argue, “They’re not supposed to like it. That’s why they call it work.”

If your employees aren’t happy and you know it, their feelings are manifesting themselves as behaviors. And those behaviors are having a negative effect on productively, quality, innovation, and likely, all three.

You have a problem. Say it out loud.

Step 2: Find the root cause(s)

Now this is where the work begins. You need to figure out the source.

There are plenty of suspects. Which are true for your employees?

  • Recent change
  • Too much work
  • Low pay
  • Inadequate tools and equipment
  • Lack of recognition
  • No feedback
  • Too much criticism
  • Unresolved interpersonal conflict
  • No training
  • Favoritism
  • Poor role models (you)
  • [FILL THE BLANK]

The one I’d suggest staying away from is, “Defective employees.” If that were the problem, and it rarely is, the real problem then would be poor hiring practices.

The hard part of this step is finding a method that will get you to the truth.

In the perfect world, you could just ask employees and they would tell you. Unfortunately, employees often won’t give up the answers that easily. Many are wary of telling the boss what they really think.

Even engagement surveys can be scary. A couple weeks ago I met with a well-educated, high-level manager who had worked for a Fortune 500 company. He told tell me, “Those surveys ask demographic questions at the end like age range, department, and gender. It wouldn’t take too much effort to connect the dots to figure out who answered that survey.” His conclusion? Tell them what they want to hear.

My suggestion is get help from an outsider. I love doing this work. It’s satisfying to figure out what’s really going on.

Using face-to-face or phone interviews, I simply ask employees to tell me how their workplace could be better. I promise to protect their anonymity and always keep the promise. I’m not naive enough to believe everyone is completely candid with me, but after talking to enough people, I feel confident I’ve discovered the most pressing problems.

Step 3: Create a vision for an energizing work environment

You can’t make it better on your own. Your employees need to help. After all, they are the ones who are crabby. Only they can decide to change how they feel about the place. For that they will need a reason to change.

Pull your team together. Let them know what you learned about the issues and concerns. Tell them that by working together you can and will address many of the problems.

Before getting to down to problem-solving, invite them to participate in a process, or at least a simple conversation, focused on this question:

What are the characteristics of your dream workplace?

I’ve found that this conversation works best when led by a skilled facilitator. This person can select an activity that fits the group’s style, ensure it’s safe to speak up, and tease out what people really want.

Do this well, and employees will find their motivation to improve the work environment.

Step 4: Identify concrete actions to move towards the vision

Now you know the problems and what people want. It’s time to make a plan.

There are three secrets that will help you be successful in this work:

  1. Work it collaboratively. Everyone has the problem. Everyone should be part of the solution.
  2. Don’t bite off too much at once. Prioritize and focus on one or two problems/opportunities at a time. When everyone feels better about one aspect of the work environment, move on to another.
  3. Remember one-size solutions don’t work. There may be a few problems that everyone feels the same about, but there will be others that garner a wide range of reactions. Ultimately, you’re fixing a departmental attitude problem one person at a time.

Step 5: Reinforce progress

When I’m in a bad mood everything seems worse than it is. I lose perspective, and am unable to see the positive things that happen to me.

If your employees have really gotten to a dark place in their view about their work environment, you’re going to have to help them see the changes that are happening.

For changes you make, point them out. Communicate some version of: “You told me you didn’t like X. I’ve changed X in the following way. What do you think now?” Rinse. Repeat.

For changes others need to make, watch for their progress and tell them what you notice. “Hey Abby, I’ve noticed you are much quicker to share your concerns with me and others on the team since we’ve talked about making that a goal for our team. I think that keeps resentments from building and causing problems. Thanks for making this change.”

Step 6: Weed out those who hold you back

Finally, it’s possible that one or two people just won’t help you make things better. They are disengaged, maybe angry. Their behavior is keeping the team from turning things around.

In these cases, you work with them one-on-one. Circle back to step 2. Maybe you still don’t understand their issues.

If, after taking all reasonable actions to help them, they continue to hold the team back, it’s time they find another place they can be happy and thrive. It will be better for them, the rest of your employees, and you.

Morale problems are serious problems

Attitude affects behavior. And behavior affects performance.

Slight morale variations are normal. Significant shifts aren’t. When they happen, figure out what’s going on. Work with your group to build a plan, and implement it over time.

You can turn things around, but only if you act.

By Tom LaForce

Tom LaForce helps companies change by creating stronger teams, more effective leaders, and better processes. To discuss a challenge you're facing, use this link to schedule a free discovery call.