The Magic Of Morale
Feeling Important Is Worth More Than Money
By Dr. Bruce A. Baldwin
Here is a riddle: "What is worth more than gold, doesn't weigh a thing, disappears when you try to measure it and is one of the biggest blind spots in American industry today?" The easy response, right off the top of your head, might be motivation. In fact, on any manager's bookshelf are tomes filled with motivational theories and techniques geared to enhancing productivity by subordinates. However, the more thoughtful answer to the riddle is morale. Look across those same bookshelves. Look for some meaningful material on morale. You will be surprised at how little you find. You have just put your finger on one of the most significant voids in the repertoire of skills of managers.
By way of illustrating the magic of morale, witness these two individuals, much alike but working for different companies.
Bob is a manufacturer's rep in a relatively small firm. As a ten-year veteran, he is professionally established and respected by his peers, but his feelings about his company are surprisingly negative. The same feelings are shared by virtually every one of his colleagues, despite the fact they are all well paid and have generous fringe benefits. Deep down, Bob knows he could sell more than he does. Every year, it seems that Bob and his peers become more reluctant to give that little bit extra. They just do not feel like it.
Ann is also a manufacturer's rep who is well paid but there is a difference. The productivity curve in her firm is nothing short of meteoric. Within, there is a strong "family feeling," despite the fact that it is much larger than the firm Bob works for. For years, she has stayed in her position even though offered other more lucrative positions by competitors. It is a fact that the attrition rate in her company is one of the lowest around. Ann feels good about herself and her personal productivity has remained very high for years.
It would be deceptively easy to attribute the difference between Bob's and Ann's performance to contrasting pay structures, to the size of the organization or to personality differences. Yet, when examined closely, these differences disappear as critical factors. The key ingredient that accounts for high productivity, low attrition and the undeniable esprit de corps in Ann's company is positive morale. In the firm that Bob has worked for, the only push for years has been "productivity" and more of it. The company cannot be faulted for that except that the push focuses only on numbers. The people who do the producing do not seem to matter, and Bob and his colleagues know it. The company attitude is: "They get well paid, don't they'? What more do they want?" The company has not realized what this attitudinal mistake has cost them so far.
One of the difficulties in any discussion of morale is that it is a most elusive quality to define in concrete terms. According to Webster, morale is "the mental and emotional attitudes of an individual to the tasks expected by a group and loyalty to it." In a nutshell, morale is a feeling that is created by the organization within every employee. It is generated by the sense of caring (or lack of it) communicated within the work environment. Of course, you know that morale can be either positive or negative. When morale is positive, it is worth more than anything money can buy. When it is negative, the cost, albeit indirect, to the firm is tremendous.
Reduced to its fundamentals, positive morale is the awareness that the individual within the company structure is important. It is the knowledge that hard work and sacrifices are recognized and appreciated. It is the sense that "I am valued here." It is the feeling of being accepted as an integral part of what is going on. When this ambience is generated, the company is rewarded by higher productivity and a positive bond to the organization that keeps good people there. Unfortunately, positive morale is not the norm in most firms. The pervasive sense that nobody really cares, the feeling of being completely unappreciated and the perception of being used and abused run rampant in American industry today.
At this juncture, it is important to clear up a misconception. It is quite common to hear managers complain about "unmotivated" employees. The fact is that there is no such thing as an unmotivated individual. What those managers really mean is that those particular employees are not motivated to do what is expected. Their attitudes toward the tasks set before them and their loyalty to the group are negative. The point is that morale, whether positive or negative, determines motivation. In turn, motivational energy may be directed into acceptable or unacceptable channels within the work environment.
Painted with a broad brush, creating positive morale is accomplished through successful efforts at relationship building within the work environment. It is the corporate communication of sensitivity to and caring about the individual. You cannot fool the employees! They invariably know what the company's attitudes toward them are. Moving in the direction of building positive morale among employees is entirely possible, but it does take time. When accomplished, however, the payoffs for everyone are pure magic. Here are some foundation concepts around which to begin planning your corporate morale-building strategy.
There are many misconceptions and erroneous beliefs about positive morale and how to create it. Unfortunately, many of these fallacies become the basis for critical management decisions only to have them fail to achieve their intended goals. Here are stated a number of basic principles that must form the foundation for any attempts to enhance morale in any given work environment.
Basic Principle #1: Positive Morale Cannot Be Bought.
Perhaps the most frequent management mistake of all is to try to increase morale (and thereby motivation and productivity) with material incentives. The reality is that once reasonable salary levels are reached, more money or better fringe benefits have a negligible effect on morale. Everyone knows that you cannot buy a relationship. It follows then that since morale is basically defined by the quality of the relationship of an employee to the company, you cannot buy morale either.
Basic Principle #2: Positive Morale Is Based On Trust.
It is almost axiomatic in those many organizations with low morale that employees are convinced that the company is not working in their best interests or that it does not really care about them. When positive morale is present, employees at every level trust the organization and its management because they know from experience that it is sensitive to their needs and watches out for their welfare. Trust building through experience is necessary for positive morale to rise within the work force.
Basic Principle #3: Positive Morale Is Surprisingly Resistant To Change.
That is, once basic trust in the organization's motives has been created, employees can tolerate, in a much healthier fashion, setbacks or disappointments. Conversely, it is equally true that negative morale is also highly resistant to change once it has been created. It takes time and persistence by the company and its officers to rebuild necessary trust. Without basic trust, employees find it difficult to move beyond their defensive postures in relation to the company.
Basic Principle #4: Positive Morale Is Highly Contagious.
Positive (or negative) morale is basically created through communication of an organization's attitudes toward employees as people. However, employee-to-employee communication consistently and massively reinforces this perception at every level of the organization. People talk to one another constantly and one of their prime concerns is how they feel about their work and about their company. Ultimately influencing this worker-to-worker communication must become one of the primary goals of any attempt to build positive morale.
Basic Principle #5: Positive Morale Creates A Strong Emotional Bond To The Organization.
As a general rule, employees will remain in a company with positive morale despite better-paying job offers. Of course, there is a point beyond which this principle does not hold true. However, the core of this principle is that strong morale creates a healthy bond of loyalty to the organization. It is most valuable in terms of retention of key people and in lowering the overall attrition rate within the company.
Basic Principle #6: High Morale Requires Basic Employee Security
.It is interesting that either too much or too little employment security negatively affects morale. Too much security (tenure) that permits incompetents to remain seems to erode morale just as surely as those organizations that are highly unstable or that capriciously terminate good employees. The sure knowledge, based on experience, that employees at every level who work hard and meet their responsibilities will be assured of retention is necessary for morale to grow.
Basic Principle #7: Positive Morale Necessitates A Direct Relationship Between Effort And Reward.
Low morale thrives in organizations where advancement does not depend on competence and personal effort. Where "getting ahead" is based on how long you have been there, whom you know, unhealthy manipulation of the system or playing office politics, basic positive feelings among the most competent employees begin to turn negative and cynical. For positive morale to build, employees must know that they are in control of their own destinies within the organization. They must be consistently able to advance on the basis of their skills and energy rather than through illegitimate avenues not based on competency.
To assess the level of morale in any given organization, it would be easy to hire a consultant to conduct a formal study. However, that option would be expensive and time consuming. The consultant would also find that the factors that determine morale are more difficult to quantify. On the other hand, any manager who is sensitive to people and who is willing to spend a bit of time looking and listening can assess morale informally but quite accurately at minimal cost. Here is how to go about it.
Assessment Factor #l: Listen To The Humor.
It is not a good sign if there is little joking around and few smiles. Healthy humor is a strong indicator of camaraderie, trust and a positive sense of self. Unhealthy humor, filled with blatant hostility, deep cynicism or a cutting edge, is endemic to organizations with low morale. Look for humor that is upbeat and reflects the ability to laugh at the funny side of life as well as the willingness of employees to share openly this part of themselves.
Assessment Factor #2: Tune Into The Grapevine.
There is a healthy grapevine in organizations with positive and negative morale. However, what travels along its tendrils differs in these two kinds of organizations. Where there is high morale, people talk about the routine comings and goings and doings of people they know. In those organizations with low morale, however, the grapevine has a strong defensive quality. It reflects the employees' high needs to find out what the company is "up to now" because of deep distrust of the organization's motives.
Assessment Factor #3: Be Sensitive To Complaints And Griping.
There is always a baseline level of griping that exists in any organization, no matter how high the morale. On the other hand, in organizations with low morale, the level of complaining rises dramatically. Virtually everyone is grumbling about something or other all the time. Complaints become a major component of informal employee-to-employee communication. There will also be an increase in the level of dissatisfaction expressed by employees throughout more formal communication up and down the organizational ladder.
Assessment Factor #4: Examine The Attrition Rate.
It is a fact that good people stay in organizations where morale is high. When morale is low, though, the attrition rate steadily increases. Not only do the numbers of people leaving go up, but more often than not, these tend to be the bright, young up-and-comers that the organization desperately needs to remain viable over the long run. In other words, in companies with low morale, the organization is distrusted and consequently there is little "holding power" to keep good workers there.
Assessment Factor #5: Take A Close Look At Organizational Responsiveness.
In short, does the organization listen to employees at every level down the hierarchy? Are legitimate complaints taken seriously and is something done about them? Does the organization solicit and listen to better ideas that come from below? In organizations with low morale, managers at every level are more interested in preserving their positions and do not want to rock the boat. One result is that organizational responsiveness goes down. In organizations with high morale, communication up-line is easy, and the organization responds quickly and positively
Assessment Factor #6: Notice The Level Of Employee Sickness.
There is no question that low morale and high levels of employees stress go together. In turn, chronic stress over time manifests itself in various forms of physical ailments. As a result, the number of sick days goes up in organizations with low morale. Another indicator is a sharp rise in health insurance usage by employees with precipitously rising costs to the organization. When positive morale builds, all of these indicators decline and stabilize at reasonable levels.
Assessment Factor #7: Get A Feel For The Number Of "Mental Health" Days Taken.
Mental health days are days off taken by employees who are not physically ill but who wake up to find that they just cannot face the office another day with its stress and frustration. This kind of time off is difficult to assess accurately because it is usually taken under the guise of legitimate sick days. However, the alert manager will get a feel for the frequency of such departures from work and will interpret it accurately as an indicator of the overall level of morale.
It is well known that the quality of the overall functioning of an organization is powerfully influenced by the values espoused by the leadership within it. These values, communicated by the behaviors of individuals in key management positions (and not necessarily by formal written policies), filter down to determine the quality of work life at every level in an organization. Here are a dozen corporate qualities, each of which represents a positive value that is directly related to the health of the organization. These same values, when consistently placed into practice by managers in their relationships with subordinates, also contribute heavily to the development of positive morale.
Corporate Quality #l: Managers Listen At The Bottom.
While necessarily sensitive to directives up-line, the morale-building manager remains very sensitive to subordinates' ideas, complaints and general welfare at all times. For those who work at every level, this kind of sensitivity and responsiveness communicates a sense of caring and the accurate perception that employees are being taken seriously. For organizations, listening at the bottom also provides insights that enhance efficiency and productivity when used as a basis for innovative change.
Corporate Quality #2: Managers Model What Is Expected Of Subordinates
.In the military, good commanders often share the trenches with their men. They model the qualities expected from subordinates and good managers do this as well. "Do what I say, not what I do!" is the hallmark of the hypocrite. The morale-building manager shares the work with a group of subordinates and makes it a point to give credit to group members for their collective efforts.
Corporate Quality #3: Managers Support Innovation And Creativity.
Another way of stating this value is that the best managers are constantly looking for a better way. This corporate value stands in stark contrast to those organizations that directly or indirectly stifle needed change because of inertia problems or because of fear of even minimal risk. In this kind of "closed" organization, morale weakens and many of the most creative employees give up trying and eventually leave.
Corporate Quality #4: The Bureaucracy Does Not Overwhelm Efficiency.
A major cause of low morale in some organizations occurs when documentation and reports become more important than getting the work done. Employees spend more time pushing paper than doing what they do best - using their skills. Asa result, they become discouraged and angry. Administrative structures that are "lean and clean" are not only conducive to productivity but also to high employee morale.
Corporate Quality #5: The Organization Hires And Promotes People-Oriented Managers.
Good managers tune into what people need to function well and produce optimally. Number crunchers with poor people skills and who are interested only in productivity at all costs tend to cost the organization dearly in the long run. Healthy organizations carefully screen their managerial applicants for established people skills and, if promoting from within, strive to develop these qualities.
Corporate Quality #6: The Organization Recognizes Individual Accomplishments.
This is a, most critical area of corporate or managerial responsiveness. Outstanding work, a special contribution or being the best is recognized and rewarded. The organization is perceived to know and to care when this happens. At another level, in high-morale organizations individual managers take the time to express appreciation directly to employees periodically for their dedication and loyalty.
Corporate Quality #7: Opportunities To Learn And To Progress Are Provided.
Within the high-morale organization there are ample opportunities to advance. Developing new skills and actualizing the potential of employees at all levels is a strong corporate priority. Typically, there are provisions for such learning through in-house programs or formal education. Employees know they are not “stuck” where they are and the organization does not hesitate to promote from within those individuals who attain necessary skills.
Corporate Quality #8: The Organization Helps Individuals Overcome Work-Related Problems.
Sometimes personal problems interfere with quality work. At other times there are specific deficiencies or bad habits that must be worked out because of their detrimental influence on the job. The organization helps individuals to resolve such problems by providing support and opportunities to overcome them. Conversely, there is little tolerance for retaining individuals who refuse to make efforts to move beyond clearly defined problems.
Corporate Quality #9: The Organization Respects Employees’ Time.
In other words, the organization does not make impossible demands on individuals or departments. In addition, managers do not expect employees to work overtime day in and day out. This value stems from recognition that a good employee who lasts is also one who has a quality life after work. That is the same kind of employee who will communicate positively about the organization and generate high morale.
Corporate Quality #10: The Employees’ Physical Work Environment Is Not Neglected.
There is little else that is more damaging to morale than a work environment that is not well lighted, where equipment is not kept in good working order and where needed supplies or resources are absent. An organization interested in fostering positive morale is very sensitive to the quality of the work environment and commits itself to making it the very best possible.
Corporate Quality #11: One Of The Deepest Organization Values Is Integrity.
It is difficult to trust a dishonest person. Similarly, employees lose faith in an organization that tries to pull fast ones, is publicly exposed as less than fully trustworthy or that is scandal-ridden. Morale drops at every level of the organization from top to bottom. Those organizations with continued high morale value above all their reputation for integrity.
Corporate Quality #12: The Organization Promotes A "We Are Winners" Attitude.
Everyone likes to be part of something special and that is certainly just as true of the organizations they work for. The organization promotes itself as a winner and acts like one. That winning spirit, when deeply felt, is infectious at every level of the organization. It becomes the icing on the morale cake when the other corporate values are already in place. It is just that touch of class that makes everyone feel personally proud of working for a particular employer.
As you now know, positive morale with all its valuable effects on the individual and the company cannot be generated directly. Rather, positive (and negative) morale results from the collective relationship of individual employees to the organization. In organizations where this fact is understood, time and energy are directed into building those relationships. High but reasonable expectations, firm but compassionate control and healthy involvement by those in charge are all key ingredients. There is no question about it. At every managerial level, paying attention to people pays off.
Interestingly, the factors that help create positive morale in the workplace are the same ones found in virtually every healthy family environment as well. In fact, individuals who work in organizations with high morale will frequently be heard making very telling comments "We're just one big family" or "It's just like family here." These remarks are heard despite the fact that the company may be quite large and have thousands upon thousands of employees. The people within such companies become intuitively aware of the special organization-to-employee relationship that is highly reminiscent of a healthy family environment.
Perhaps one other related point should be made. Families frequently experience morale problems just as organizations do. The way to resolve this kind of family problem is to use the same techniques already suggested for companies but adapted to the home setting. Basically, a healthy relationship is a healthy relationship whether it is between an organization and an employee or between parent and child. It involves creating a protected growth environment in which those in charge are very responsive to subordinates. When such an environment has been established, three other morale-building qualities are also produced within the individual.
Morale Builder #1: There Is A Sense Of Belonging To Something Good
.In every individual, there is a need to belong to and be accepted by a group. In settings where there is high morale, this important need to belong emotionally is fulfilled and results in tremendous positive motivation and loyalty.
Morale Builder #2: A Positive Sense Of Self-Esteem Is Validated.
The individual has several major sources of self-esteem, one of which is performance in the workplace. The high-morale environment is one that expresses appreciation and responds to employee efforts in personally validating ways.
Morale Builder #3: The Individual Is Freed To Grow.
Within this kind of healthy "family-milieu, individuals are freed to mature and to grow personally and professionally. The trust, baseline security and freedom within limits permit the individual to change and develop because energy is not tied up in defending against an adversarial organization.
Both literally and figuratively, the level of morale in an organization reflects its heart and also reveals it. Morale at the very bottom of the organization is directly related to the value system of the organization and its managers at every level above. The power of positive morale on people cannot be underestimated. It is a given that healthy relationships can be built by those savvy enough to know how to go about it. The result is an enhancement of the morale that in turn results in fewer people problems and higher productivity. Everyone wins. A wit once remarked that "a procrastinator is someone who just won't take NOW for an answer!" Let's see now. About those changes you have been thinking about making. . . .