Morale in the Workplace

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Improving morale in the workplace can be a daunting task for any manager. It has been shown that staff empowerment is one of the best ways to do this, but it cannot be done simply in the vacuum of empowerment. So what does motivate staff? MIT researchers found that allowing for creativity and free work-expression regardless of rewards is the best way to empower staff. In the study, when given monetary rewards for increased performance the higher the reward the worse the outcome. Seems weird right? Well, these researchers found that only non-skilled, low threshold tasks actually improved with more incentives (e.g., housekeeping). The more complex the task, the higher skilled the workforce, increased incentives for particular tasks caused performance to decreased measurably. This study was repeated in other countries and the results where the same. This research suggests that in order to improve performance, and motivating staff you need to pay them enough to not make money the issue. Once monetary gains are no longer the chief motivator, empowerment can lead to amazing things.

John Schaefer once wrote that there is an easy process to ensure you don’t kill morale in the workplace, or destroy what level of morale is left. Trust is very important. If they don’t trust you, or you don’t trust them, the organization is set-up to fail. You need to show your staff respect, at all times. Respect them both at a personal and professional level. Disagreements are fine, as long as they are handled in a professional way. As a manager, you need to nurture the staffs’ creativity (as stated above), not kill it with mundane tasks or policy driven busy work that doesn’t improve the organization. This is especially important in the higher-skilled work force. [1]

Why is this important though? Well, simply put empowerment leads to satisfaction, which in turn leads to improved morale. Giving your staff a true sense of ownership in not just the work they do, but also the organization they work in sits at the foundation of empowerment. This can be accomplished through simple open and honest staff / management communication, knowledge of the vision and future path of the organization, and treating all staff with dignity and respect. Empowerment comes from respect, value and appreciation at its core. A lack of these traits leads to poor morale that can be unrecoverable, however they alone will not lead to successfully improving the morale of the workplace.

We understand the importance of empowerment, but how do we get there? Aniko Czinege recommends a three-stage approach to improving morale, and empowerment can be seen in all three stages. Stage one is intuitive, simply listen and get feedback from your staff. Open, honest communication is key, stage two is just communication. Closed doors, non-answers, hyperbole, or rhetoric without foundation are killers to morale. Lastly, recognition of work well done,[2] here I am not talking a pat on the back or a free pizza. A negative attitude about the work product, constant criticism or harassment by management is poison in the workplace. It is true that poor performance needs to be addressed (this will be covered in an accountability piece coming soon); managers have to recognize the contribution of their staff as well. If all you here from the corporate offices is bad news, staff will come into work each day metaphorically covering their six.

OK, this may all seem like commonsense, but in many organizations staff members suffer from low workplace morale. They stay for many reasons; most recently the poor economy has made transitioning to a new organization difficult. Even for skilled works, job opportunities are few and the more specialized your industry, the fewer spots there are to transition. Poor staff morale cost organizations in a big way. Far beyond the in your face issue of bad attitudes, there is a financial cost that the organization will bare. According to Gallup, morale issues can cost an organization more the $760,000 / yr. in lost or decreased productivity, absenteeism, and poor customer satisfaction. [3]  Both front line managers, and those who sit in the c-suite can set the cornerstone for a great workplace for staff and management alike if they don’t forget about those who make the widget, drive the truck, push the cart, or clean your bathroom. Those line employees make your organization possible; they are people with feelings and emotions. Strive to keep their morale high, and they will improve your organization from its core. Kill their morale, and turnover, lost contracts, sick time, poor customer satisfaction and lost productivity may destroy the organization, and you along with it.


[1] Schaefer, John, The Root Causes of Low Employee Morale, The American Management Association: Articles & White Papers, Retrieved on July 12, 2013 from http://www.amanet.org/training/articles/The-Root-Causes-of-Low-Employee-Morale.aspx

[2] Czinege, Aniko, The Three-Stage Strategy to Improving Employee Morale, Melcrum – Connecting Communicators, Retrieved on July 11, 2013 from https://www.melcrum.com/research/engage-employees-strategy-and-change/three-stage-strategy-improving-employee-morale

[3] Fink, Nicole, The High Cost of Low Morale: How to Address Low Morale in the Workplace through Servant Leadership, The Leading Edge, Roberts Wesleyan College, Retrieved on July 10, 2013 from http://www.roberts.edu/Academics/AcademicDivisions/BusinessManagement/msl/Community/Journal/TheHighCostofLowMorale.htm

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