The Journey From Morale to Mastery

Low morale caused by structural business issues is difficult to deal with, but handling it the right way can turn around low motivation to bolster your talent.

The first thing to realize is that there is a strong connection between results, motivation and leadership. It’s easy to lead a business when results and motivation are high, just as people in a highly successful company are usually highly motivated. But that connection goes both ways. Low business results and following lack of rewards, restructuring or cut-backs can be very damaging to your team’s motivation. If your leadership cannot turn this around, you will quickly find yourself in a downward spiral that seems at an unavoidable collision course with bankruptcy.

Morale and Motivation

Morale and Motivation are some of the key components of a healthy psychological makeup of your team; while they are not exactly the same, they are closely related and have great impact in your team’s performance on both short and long terms.

When thinking about Motivation, consider a team member’s individual reasons for coming to work in the morning and giving you their best effort. At the fear of sounding like a broken record, you can easily reference Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as I have to explain the importance of Capability Development or the elements of a successful onboarding program. Satisfying higher needs on the pyramid is strongly correlated to higher motivation. People are unlikely to want to work without pay (and if they do, they are motivated for very different reasons), are more motivated when they feel at home and are most motivated when they have room to develop themselves and twine together their own drive and the company’s business strategy and image.

Morale is a measure of your team’s psychology as a whole, and while highly motivation can lead to higher team morale, it is very possible to have a team of very motivated individuals who cannot seem to achieve anything because they are working inefficiently, incoherently or have a high turnover as they are continually hired away by competitors. Factors of morale include teamwork and communication, work environment, quality of processes, leadership and having a clear, common set of goals for everyone to work towards.

Think of Motivation as the fuel that runs your organization, with Morale being the engine. The fuel’s quality is important, but as long as you have fuel, the engine runs. Morale is how this fuel is turned into motion – and if morale is poor, you will have very poor efficiency in your engine and the outcome will be bad as well.

How to Recognize Low Morale

Usually the first sign of low Morale in your team is a drop in productivity. People miss deadlines, the quality of their work goes down, sick leave and off days increase. You might find team members congregating at the coffee machine, voicing their dissatisfaction. Usually at least one team member has already spoken with you or other managers about issues, often more than once, but problems remain unresolved.

Note that it’s possible for a team with low Morale to still produce good results; highly motivated individuals (because they are new, professional or well-rewarded) can often improve the results despite poor processes and workplace circumstances. But this is not sustainable, and there will be an eventual drop in the team’s productivity as Morale further declines.

You will often see a drop in Motivation as well; people no longer seek training or join events or meetings. Disinterested in promotions inside the company (and becoming “part of the problem”) they stop looking for options for self-improvement and opportunities to advance.

Critically low morale is accompanied by long-term sick leave, failing to meet major deadlines, workplace conflicts and unresolved arguments. You will find that team members start looking for positions in other teams or companies to escape the conditions existing in your team.

Improving Morale in Your Team

Leadership and transparency are key in turning up Morale in an organization. A primary source of Morale is having clear goals, and the security that everyone is working towards achieving the same set of directives. This means having transparency in your management position, and good communication between managers, team leads as well as the vertical organization.

Consider having to achieve a deadline, but every department is doing its own thing, without interdepartmental communication. You will find that it’s very hard to coordinate, and you continuously need to correct for small changes made by individual departments as they needed to improvise part of a process or solve a problem. Each department feels that they will be fine as long as they make their own deadlines, regardless of other departments. This leads to phenomena like “Silos” and “Throwing work across the fence”.

This leads to low morale, as people feel they are fighting other departments, not working with them. Making sure that the people responsible in those departments communicate on their issues, solutions and changes means that they are now working together – not against each other – to achieve a common goal instead of departmental targets.

The role of leadership here is to inspire everyone to work together to achieve communal goals through cooperation, sharing and a common identity – colleagues of the company, not just colleagues in a department. This means putting names and faces to individuals, instead of faceless department names and group-based email inboxes.

It is also imperative for management at any level to be open to feedback and suggestions, allowing processes and directives to be changed where this would improve the work environment or reduce difficulty. The same goes for ideas that would make the workplace feel more safe, at home or accommodating to people’s needs. As long as people give feedback (or complain about things) and you are open to discussion and promoting changes for the better, you will positively impact Morale.

Encourage people to take charge, and own their process. Allow people to stand for what they produce and make them responsible and recognized for this. People who feel like they own a process or action feel motivated to improve upon it, and combined with proper communication this can greatly smooth production, lower throughput time and increase the sense of security that “X is on the job”.

This of course automatically comes with recognizing teams’ achievements and capabilities. People taking charge, improving processes and generally being in tune with the company’s directives and goals should be praised and recognized for this. Even just a “thank you” email to team members who spent an all-nighter to meet a critical deadline can greatly improve people’s moods, especially if this email comes from senior management, showing their involvement and connection with everyone in the company and not just the management team itself.

Office rumors are often caused by insecurity and are themselves a cause of dropping Morale. A high-impact individual might be leaving the company, the department might be reorganized, or the company might get sold or fused with another company. Someone who gets wind of this might start spreading rumors, and those will morph as they go and turn a simple story of person leaving the company on good terms into a corporate row. It is important that, where possible, such rumors are suppressed and replaced with clear management communication. It might not be possible to tell a lot, given the sensitive nature of such things, but focus your communication on securities you can give.

Morale can be maintained or boosted by focusing on how things will go, giving regular updates, and asking people to be discrete. People who are given information as a group, but asked to keep it secret, are more likely to do so as they feel secure in the knowledge that they have inside information, no matter how little.

Social engagement is another key element in maintaining Morale on a regular basis. Team meetings are not just productive, they can also be used to celebrate birthdays, team members’ achievements and good news. Team days to celebrate achieving yearly goals are great ways to recognize everyone in the company for doing a good job, but more importantly to get everyone together in an informal setting and allowing them to meet each other (sometimes for the first time) without it involving the job.

How to Recognize Low Motivation

Low Motivation is an individual thing, and recognizing it requires being familiar with people and their way of working. They key thing with low motivation is “change, but not for the better”.

Someone who’s always on time might start showing up late. A team member who reports issues promptly might no longer do so. Colleagues who usually send product updates and news to their team members stop doing that. A highly motivated individual whose dream was to be promoted to a certain position no longer speaks of it, but spends more time on job sites. All in all, people with low motivation become listless, and most importantly they stop complaining about things that hinder their work because they are no longer engage, and have stopped caring.

The danger of low Motivation is that once this sets in, it can become contagious. People are sensitive to each others’ moods and emotional states, and you will find that once a highly motivated person becomes demotivated, they cause a “black hole effect” around them, as people who were relying heavily on this person also become demotivated. A previously highly motivated person (once capable of inspiring high morale by enthusiasm and leadership) being depressed, grumpy or disengaged may inspire others to become the same. Inspiration works both ways, and a person can inspire negativity as much as positivity. This effect can ripple through a team and, in turn, cause low Morale.

Improving Motivation in Your Team Members

Looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the physiological (monetary) needs are the first to be satisfied, but they are also the hardest to change because they are often contractually limited and bound by processes and approvals. At most times, I would assume that team leaders need to look for ways to improve motivation beyond rewarding team members with bonuses, incentives or other monetary gains.

Recognition and praise are great motivators once you get beyond the basic monetary rewards that come with a job. This covers both the “safety” and the “belonging” slices of the pyramid, where you as a team leader need to make people feel valued for their input and efforts, but also secure in their position. This means that someone hired to do a job should be allowed to take charge in it, for example, without being constantly micromanaged by you or opposed by a colleague.

Additionally, be wary of overworking your team. People usually do not mind overtime, or working hard to make a deadline, but get alarmed if this becomes the norm rather than an exception. A rough guide is that people start to feel stressed at about 75% of their capacity. Once they go over this, they will start to feel harried, miss breaks, work late and feel a direct impact to their energy levels. Anything over 90% will lead to a depression or burn out in the long run, and will show negative impact on morale, quality and productivity in a relatively short time. 100% effort is unsustainable in the long run, and will usually be followed by absenteeism, sick leave and obvious symptoms of stress. If you are not sure what that would be like, consider the conditions under which Amazon warehouse employees were operating.

Safety isn’t just being secured from being fired, but also feeling capable and mandated to do the work. Instead of being an extension piece for a team lead, a highly motivated individual needs to be recognized as an expert and valued as such. This covers the “esteem” slice of the pyramid quite nicely.

This bleeds into another source of motivation, namely self-actualization and improvement. People don’t just follow trainings and keep up to date with their profession’s industry standards to be able to keep up with their jobs, they also  are impacted strongly by their role as a source of identity. They want to grow and improve beyond simple task-based day to day activities – perhaps even becoming leaders in their fields or advisers to management regarding future developments. Growth and improvement need to be rewarded and encouraged. I always say that “training is what allows you to do your job, but learning is what makes you a more skilled person”. Look beyond the needs of their job requirements and allow them to work on what makes them better people, colleagues, experts and leaders.

Trust and flexibility towards people also work to improve both morale and motivation; flexible hours may help people who are having trouble juggling multiple obligations and personal issues. Getting people involved and creative with solutions means your processes and outputs improve while giving people creative freedoms, which they will appreciate. Encouraging your team members to cooperate and step beyond the borders of their own daily activities fosters awareness of each others’ work and difficulties, but also offers just that little bit extra knowledge and personal growth.

In Conclusion

The morale in your team and the motivation of its individual members have a direct impact on your team results and the company’s revenues. Morale suffers when targets are unclear and there is a self-centered attitude with regards to deadlines and progress. Motivation suffers when people feel underappreciated, disengaged and bored. Both are improved through personal involvement and attention for your workplace environment, transparency of communication and your people’s well-being in general.

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