If I read one more article about how to boost morale in the workplace simply by saying nice things to co-workers and subordinates, I might say something decidedly not nice. The message and the tone – what you say and how you say it – are, of course, important elements in the morale equation. No doubt. But words are the end, not the beginning, of the effort. We must start with an examination of the culture and values of the organization, and how the leadership implements them.
I won’t point a finger at the recently published piece that set me off. I was encouraged initially when I read the first point: conduct an assessment. Then, hopes were dashed when it was clear the research was not about values or culture or communication practices. It was about your attitude. Again, it’s an important point but not where to begin. Morale is complicated, not one-dimensional, and goes to the core of the organization and its leadership.
Perhaps the most common mistake in the one-dimensional realm is confusing fun for morale. I had a boss who once asked me what morale measures I was undertaking for the office I was recently hired to lead. I said I involved the whole operation – in teams and as individuals – in discussions about our new direction. I reported that we were creating new business plans, investing in training, developing individualized career paths, and ensuring everyone understood their role and their goals. Excitement and camaraderie was building. And, I added that we just celebrated a new business win with a very enjoyable happy hour. “Yeah, that’s fine,” he responded. “But it’s not enough.”
He insisted that I give $200 to each staff member and the morning off so they can buy something for themselves. Then, host a lunch where everyone could share what they bought. I was incredulous and pretty sure gave a reflexive, accidental eye roll. I added to the blooming disagreement by saying, “Isn’t that a bit like a band aid? I think morale is an outcome of doing all the great stuff we’ve set in motion. What expectations are we setting with the $200? What will we need to do next week or next month?”
That may not have been the best way to raise an objection but I saw too many forced-fun, temporary fixes before. You can try to build instant, synthetic relationships but authenticity rules and it takes time for cohesiveness to gel.
Like so many other important efforts, organizational behaviors and principles must be continually role modeled and reinforced. You cannot put your mission/vision/values statement in a nice frame, nail it to the conference room wall and walk away. Make them count. All the time. This applies to the intern, to the board of directors, and everyone in between. And we must ensure there are consequences for negative or harmful actions. Want to undermine the morale of your organization? Ignore, tolerate or reward bad behavior. Don’t confront the toxic employee.
The bottom line is that morale, or creating a fun or a “cool” place to work, is an outcome of an honest, ethical, communicative and interesting work environment. Organizations succeed when they focus on delivering differentiated products or services, provide unambiguous information, and instill confidence with visible and empathetic leadership.
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