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Jun 06

The Company Morale Conundrum

Leaders must act to build a positive, values-based corporate culture.

Have you been struggling with how to improve morale and keep your office upbeat, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, when recruiting and retaining talented workers has become more challenging than ever? Well, you certainly aren’t alone! 

To be effective leaders and managers, we must develop strong morale among our staff; without it, work output, work quality and growth may drastically fall. 

Leadership experts — usually academics — suggest a myriad of reasons why staff morale can tank. Some of them even offer their own solutions. However, unless you’ve spent countless hours in the driver’s seat of your own company — or as a leader in another — you cannot appreciate how critically important it is to have happy, fulfilled employees. I’m talking about employees who enjoy a true sense of belonging. Good morale is the defining factor that separates success and failure, and the buck stops with the leader. 

After more than 25 years as founder, CEO and hands-on leader of my own company, I’ve learned that the presence of several key elements helps determine employee morale. Let’s explore them one at a time. 

Do Employee and Company Values Match? 

Aligning Values: To be happy and fulfilled, people must feel that their daily work goals align with their personal value system. It’s your responsibility, as a leader, to help this alignment become real, as well as to ensure that individual goals meld with the company’s goals. To do this effectively, you would normally schedule a one-on-one meeting with each employee to learn their values and identify those that matter most to them in the workplace.

That meeting would best be held offsite at a coffeeshop or over a casual lunch — not in the office. You want to make this meeting an event; thus, you will need neutral territory. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this became a bit trickier.  Virtual meetings took the place of (and still often replace) those one-on-one coffeeshop sessions. Don’t let that deter you from meeting with staff. 

Chances are that employees will readily open up to you. After all, they have the boss’ undivided attention. For precisely that reason, be sure to listen without interrupting. Observe their emotions and body language as they speak, and really hear what they have to say. It might be a bit more difficult in a virtual session, but, certainly, it’s still better than just having that blind telephone call where emotions are also opaque.

Give your employees this opportunity to explain their own values. Taking copious notes during the conversation and summing up your takeaways are conspicuous actions that demonstrate you listened. You don’t have to agree with everything that’s said, and it’s important that your discussion doesn’t become a complaint session. That’s not the purpose, nor is it the time. Keep the focus on what drives your employee’s happiness and what makes up the core of their values. 

After you’ve gained a good understanding of what they’re saying, ask the employee if they feel like their daily work aligns with their personal values. For instance, if honesty is important to them, do they feel as though the organization conducts business honestly? Conversely, do they feel that your company is squeezing clients for every penny it can get? Is your company charging for services that it doesn’t provide? Alternately, is it just the opposite, with your organization taking integrity very seriously? Does your company aim to go above and beyond for your clients, delivering on promises? Does your firm own its victories and its mistakes, or is it common practice to make excuses? 

If your organization’s values are aligned with your employee’s values, you’re likely to see a happier person sitting in front of you. If not, then it’s time to rethink how you conduct business. This exercise has a twofold benefit: First, it shows your employee that they have a voice that matters to you. Second, it allows you, as a leader, to make smart adjustments that better align your business with sustainable practices. 

If something sticks out to you that could have an immediate impact, don’t be bashful! Let the employee know. Conversely, if there’s something that just doesn’t fit your corporate structure or goals, it’s okay to speak about that, too. Why won’t or can’t you make a change to satisfy the employee? Can you articulate how the personal and corporate goals collide? 

Enjoy Incremental Victories 

Play Small Ball and Reward Every Achievement: “Small ball” is a baseball term that describes a style of play. Instead of every batter trying to hit a home run each time at bat (a terrible strategy, statistically speaking), winning teams often employ the small-ball approach by seeking to get runners on base, moving them around the bases and seeking to score runs. Laying down a bunt, hitting a blooper base hit and stealing a base can get the job done in incremental steps. Those steps require creativity instead of brute strength. Team-sports analogies, as well as the lessons they teach, will always be helpful as people grow in corporate America. 

Employees should enjoy their daily, smaller, incremental victories. These often go unnoticed, however. As a leader, you must look for and celebrate these daily victories along with them. Give your employees recognition and honor the smaller achievements, which, collectively, make the larger goal possible. To improve and maintain morale, employees must feel that what they’re doing is important…that their achievements make a difference to the team’s most challenging goals. Frequent recognition for effective, creative problem-solving increases happiness and fosters teamwork; thus, it improves morale. Recognize, reward and repeat! 

The Ties That Bind 

Create Strong Bonds Within Your Teams: Most employees spend more than a third of their lives working. That’s especially true if they’re managers, senior-level staff or leaders. Imagine spending eight-plus hours a day with people you don’t like and don’t know anything about. This represents a sterile environment that most people would dread showing up to each day. Dread equals unhappiness, and unhappiness is profoundly contagious. It will quickly poison the well, and, ultimately, it will prove crushing to a team’s morale. Get to the root cause and understand why the misalignment — the dread of coming to work — exists. Can things be salvaged and turned around? In the most dramatic situation, be prepared to give that employee the choice to join the team or go elsewhere. 

What you do want to encourage is a cohesive group that can work together toward your common goals. The best way to build closer relationships among your workforce — they are, after all, your greatest asset — is to bring them together outside of the work environment. If possible, hold a dinner with one rule: No one can discuss business. Try having everyone at the table go around and state one interesting or unusual fact about themselves. This ice-breaking exercise unveils similarities among people and leads to interesting conversations. It also allows people to let their guard down and relate to one another on a personal level. 

Outings and Team-Building Events 

People crave familiarity because it removes discomfort and awkwardness. With regular outings and team-building events — for example, exercise programs (e.g., daily yoga or walks), a wine-tasting trip or a group painting class — you can bring people together and create deeper relationships. After a few of these, you should see improved teamwork at the office, better individual interactions and a pervasive sense of belonging. Improved teamwork and a supportive, friendly work environment are the greatest morale boosters that a company can achieve. The payoff for the time and financial investment is immeasurable. Always remember that your employees can make or break you. 

Leaders have a responsibility to care for their employees beyond offering 401(k)s, PTO and pay increases. They should embrace a more humanistic approach to leadership and company culture—one that has proven effective at large corporations. Meeting employees where they are in their lives, knowing and respecting their values, and recognizing daily achievements in a tight-knit team helps to build and maintain strong morale. Happiness, fulfillment and a sense of belonging within and among teams guarantees a more productive and successful company. 

Get to know your team. Let your team know what your expectations are. Then, go out and strive for your mutual success. 

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