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Low Morale is a Leader's Responsibility

Gordon Tredgold says that leaders have a “duty to care.” This makes sense because our people are our number one resource. Without them, we have nothing, so taking care of them is a significant leadership responsibility.

In fact, Simon Sinek goes one step further saying, “Leadership is not a rank or a position, it is a choice – a choice to look after the person to the left of us and the person to the right of us because the leaders who get the most out of their people are the leaders who care the most about their people.”

Why Low Morale Matters

Morale is an emotional state of mind that influences our perceptions, attitudes, and behaviours. Since it involves feelings and emotions, it’s often overlooked or even avoided when the cracks begin to show.

Low morale cannot be underestimated because it impacts every single thing that goes on within an organization. It’s insidious- spreading far and wide, and if not dealt with, it can cause us to lose even our star performers at any time.

Warning Signs

Low morale doesn’t happen overnight. It builds slowly but gains momentum if the root causes aren’t addressed. There can be any number of reasons for low morale, some within our control, others not (economic, pandemic, etc.) The problem is that although it can begin with factors outside our control, it’s almost always reinforced by behaviours and situations that we, as leaders, can influence and affect.

Low morale can show up in a multitude of ways.

1. Poor performance or quality of work

2. Frequent sick days or emotional outbursts

3. Apathy, silence, or lack of enthusiasm

4. Persistent negative attitude (especially if they’d been positive before)

5. Culture of gossip and misinformation

6. High employee turnover

Research shows that employees at greatest risk for low morale are those having recently gone through, or are currently in the midst of a significant organizational change(s). When change disrupts how a team functions or removes something from the environment that an employee believed in, enjoyed, or relied upon, there’s a sense of loss and uncertainty. So, taking a look at the recent or residual effects of past changes can provide hints at what might be going on and why.

What’s Within Our Control

Though there can be any number of reasons for low morale to creep into a workplace, the number one reason it takes root and spreads across an organization is- you guessed it- poor leadership. A lack of morale across an organization or group within it, means the leader and/or manager has not addressed the root cause.

And we’re not referring to feel-good activities like social events, or even rewards and recognition programs. These are helpful when it comes to building and strengthening morale, but if the root cause isn’t dealt with these just become band-aid solutions. And in some cases, they can actually make things worse, because they can be viewed as purposefully distracting from the issues at hand, causing even more resentment to fester.

5 Things We Can Do to Address Low Morale

Once we have an issue with morale, what can be done to address and improve it? Keeping in mind that low morale often stems from a lack of trust, which then leads to resentment, apathy, and other negative feelings, it’s not something that’s going to go away overnight. It will take a demonstration of small right actions to rebuild that trust and prove to employees that leadership is paying attention and caring. ‘Talk is cheap’ as they say.

Here are five tactics that will certainly help move things in the right direction:

1. Deal with Problem Staff- Underperformers or bullies can drain morale faster than anything else. And allowing or ignoring the bad behaviour is both frustrating and disheartening for others, especially if they’re part of a team structure. Even if they’re ‘good performers’ it’s best to remove problem staff because their productivity comes at the expense of others. Negative experiences have a lingering effect and cause more turnover than you think. Using progressive discipline, the sooner we either right the ship or remove the anchor, the better.

2. Train Our Managers- Managers’ efforts and attitudes have a huge impact on morale. And their behavior has a cascading effect on their teams. In fact, research tells us that managers who work for engaged leaders are 39% more likely to be engaged, and staff who work for engaged managers are 59% more likely to be engaged.

Managers not listening to their staff is one of the most common causes of resentment, as are managers who fail to keep their promises. Attitude alone isn’t enough to raise morale, managers must lead by example. There have to be actions taken and the right conversations had.

It’s amazing how little management training those people holding management positions today have actually received. Most people who are promoted into management roles got the promotion because they were really good at their jobs. That, however, does not mean they’ll be good managers. Investment into training our people to become competent managers will be the best money we’ve ever spent.

3. Provide Clarity- in many cases, uncertainty over job expectations, goals, accountability, purpose, etc. can be at the root of a lack of morale. Employees aren’t psychic. We need to spell things out clearly and when there are mixed messages coming at them, it’s frustrating trying to sort out which way to go. And that uncertainty can lead to a sense of loss and insecurity.

4. Communicate Intentionally- It’s critical that leaders communicate well and intentionally because that’s what ties everything together. Being transparent with staff and delivering changes in person so questions can be addressed, even if we don’t know the answers yet, builds trust rather than suspicion. The more proactive we are in sharing information with staff, the better, as long as the messaging is relevant to its audience.

5. Reinforce Purpose- When people feel their work matters and they understand how their contribution impacts a larger purpose, they’re automatically more motivated and engaged. Remember morale is affected by feelings and emotions, so feeling valued and connected rather than unimportant and isolated is key. Don’t assume staff should just know, this needs to be an ongoing conversation.

Morale impacts people and people are our number one resource. As leaders, it’s our obligation to set an example, provide clear expectations, solve problems, and ensure our people have everything they need to be successful.

Great leaders are great listeners. You have to ask a lot of questions and you have to really listen to the answers because in every answer there are at least three more questions you want to be asking.

Until you get to the bottom, and everything is out there, you can’t start to build solutions.

– Melanie Whelan

If you truly want to improve ‘employee morale’ inside your workplace, spend more time encouraging and practicing harmony across the organization instead of developing and tolerating toxic silos and cliques. — Ty Howard


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