The link between leadership and morale is not a new concept. It’s as ancient as war and just as critical for success in the workplace as it was on the battlefield. In the same way that good generals could rally troops, so too can CEOs and managers learn the skills necessary to keep their employees motivated and moving forward despite high stress and turbulent times. And times are turbulent. Post-pandemic disruptions are leaving many workers and their leaders reeling. But the companies that are surviving, even thriving, in this climate have something in common — the stability of their employees. Though you may have less control over the external forces threatening your industry, there are powerful ways you can affect the resilience of your company from within.
Even if tensions are high and motivation is low, the right leadership skills can enable you to boost employee morale and turn the ship around. Let’s take a look at how leadership and morale are connected, the ways you may be inadvertently undermining your own success, and the sorts of skills you can cultivate to be an effective leader when morale is low.
The Relationship Between Leadership and Employee Morale
Low employee morale isn’t new to the workplace, but the problems it causes are being felt more than ever. Pivoting and adapting to handle COVID-19 required a lot of change very quickly, putting stress on workers from the bottom to the top. Now, the damage is starting to show. One Gallup study found that 48 percent of employees want to change jobs. People are dubbing it “the great resignation,” and workforce gaps are being felt globally. But the trouble isn’t just pay. It’s poor management and bad work environments.
Leadership defines workplace culture. So if the environment is bad, then you can safely bet that something is amiss with management. Of course, no one likes to work for a jerk, but people also aren’t very willing to put their best effort in for someone they don’t trust, like or respect. If you had to choose between watching a funny cat video or spending six hours on a proposal your boss would tear apart (or maybe not even read), which would you choose? The best in us brings out the best in other people. A rising tide raises all boats.
Leadership and employee morale are inextricably linked, so when that connection is lost, it leads to the silent killer in company culture: disengagement. When employs are disengaged, they’re less productive, less motivated and can cost thousands in turnover. Gallup’s latest data on engagement shows that the percentage of actively disengaged workers in the US has gone up from 14 percent to 15 percent, which means that it’s more important than ever to address the dissatisfaction in your company.
Signs of Low Morale
It’s usually pretty easy to spot low morale when it’s at its worst, but if you suspect something may be going south, here are some signs to look out for:
- Poor attendance and frequent sick days: If managers are struggling to get people in the office, something may be brewing beneath the surface. The opposite is also true — when employees won’t take vacation or sick days, they may not be showing signs of zealous commitment. It may be a sign of mismanaged workloads, lack of proper tools and training or high turnover.
- High turnover: Are you struggling to retain employees? Are you spending thousands of dollars on a never-ending cycle of headhunting and onboarding? Some turnover can be expected in the workplace. High turnover may be a sign that something’s gone wrong.
- Diminished productivity: Are deadlines being skipped? Are managers or workers asking for extension after extension? Are you noticing a rise in Internet browsing or a spike in phone usage? Morale may be in jeopardy.
If these are the symptoms you’re experiencing in your company, don’t panic! There are some simple ways to affect change, whether that’s stopping a few inadvertent bad habits or cultivating a few new ones.
Ways You May Be Inadvertently Contributing to Low Morale
Being an executive or CEO requires a lot of time, energy and effort. But few people stay in those positions without developing a few people skills along the way. Sometimes, especially in high-stress work environments, it’s easy to let deadlines, budgets and goals get in the way of our relationship-building. If you’ve found that a once thriving department or culture has slowed down or even come to a screeching halt, it may be due to leadership inadvertently contributing to low morale. Here are some of the classic missteps leaders make that can take a toll on employees.
- Poor communication: As helpful as it would be, your parents, children, spouse and friends can’t read your mind. Neither can your employees. Communication is essential in all relationships, and that is no different in the workplace. Go the extra mile when it comes to communicating. Be clear, concise and kind. Be patient with questions and double-check for understanding. A little goes a long way!
- Withholding praise: People want to know when they’ve done a good job, and telling them when they have creates incentive to do it again. Don’t be stingy with your public praise, but be sure to keep criticism behind closed doors. Your employees will thank you.
- Punishing appropriate boundaries: Healthy boundaries are an essential part of work-life balance, and work-life balance is what every employee wants. People are juggling many obligations outside of work including spouses, children, communities, hobbies and wellness. Calling an employee late at night for a non-emergency question or request and then punishing them when they don’t answer with a poor performance review or by withholding promotions or raises is a surefire way to either overwork your talent or hamper company loyalty when it actually counts.
- Passing the buck: It can be hard to acknowledge when we’ve messed up or to take the heat when someone else dropped the ball, but when you do, respect deepens and trust grows. With great power comes great responsibility, and sometimes that looks like taking responsibility when it would be easier to to pass off blame.
- Perpetuating power dynamics: If you like to assert your power and actually “boss” people around, you’re not going to be a successful leader. You’re going to look like a bully. And it’s not just about your own position, but the people you put into positions of power as well. Be mindful of the tone you set and address power dynamics from the top down. Everyone probably knows you’re in charge, so don’t flex your power. Flex your humility.
How to be an Effective Leader in a Company with Low Morale
Leadership skills are just that. Skills. It takes experience and intention to develop good ones. Sometimes, when things are stressful or during rapid growth, it’s easy to let certain things slide. But eventually, every leader needs to come face-to-face with their people skills, and they may be surprised to find that they’re a little lacking. That’s okay. A growth mindset is essential to good leadership. Here are some ways you can grow into an effective leader in a company with low morale.
Listen to Your Employees
Have you ever been in a conversation where the person keeps interrupting you and never lets you get a word in? It’s infuriating. Bad leadership can be like that type of conversation. A simple charisma-building strategy is to ask questions and listen more than you talk, and that can be an effective tool with employees as much as anyone else. When people feel seen and heard, their trust grows. So does their loyalty. You may also be surprised by the ideas and suggestions that come your way when you open dialogue with your workers! It may be difficult to convince disengaged employees to come forward at first. The initial feedback may also be overwhelmingly negative at first. But once your employees know you’re ready to make a change and want them to be part of it, you may be surprised by the shift that occurs!
Strategies to Try:
- Schedule periodic lunch dates with key executives or subordinates and ask them to prepare feedback.
- Establish an “open door policy,” and set hours when employees can meet with you about questions or concerns.
- Make it a point to call on every person at important meetings to hear what they have to say.
Camaraderie is a powerful tool and a powerful incentive. Teamwork makes the dream work, as they say, and when your employees care for each other, the work grows. Colleagues will step up when others need to slow down and people become more open to asking questions and receiving help from their peers. A research study at Stanford found that when people were told they were working together on a task, they worked longer, harder, and solved more problems correctly. Their recall was better, they were more interested in the work and they felt less tired by the end of the task. Humans are social creatures, and we like it that way. Foster those relationships and you can expect some positive changes to come with it.
Strategies to Try:
- Establish a corporate-wide volunteer day where employees work toward a common, community-oriented goal.
- Invest in team-building workshops and retreats for departments.
- Reward teams as opposed to individuals.
Invest in Your Employees’ Professional Development
When Millennials were asked to rank the top benefits they sought in their employment, professional development took first place. Even simple steps like outlining the paths to promotion or sending employees to conferences and training events that can help them grow. People want to be at their best, and it’s in your best interest to help them do so! The skills they learn are ones they’ll bring into the workplace, and the opportunities you afford them to continue that growth will incentivize them to climb the ladder in your company as opposed to using those skills to climb elsewhere.
Strategies to Try
- Offer stipends for reading materials, trainings or conferences of your employee’s choice.
- Choose relevant conferences or training events to send your employees to each year.
- Bring in experts and consultants to offer corporate-wide development services.
Treat Employees Like People, Not Pawns
As leaders, it’s our job to remember that employees are people. Of course, every leaders wants their talent to perform at their best. Of course, they want them to put in the same effort and investment they are putting in to help the business thrive. But these are humans, not robots. It’s natural for them to be driven by their hopes and fears, to expect something to be in it for them, and to be treated as competent and intelligent adults. As leaders, it’s our job to honor those expectations and handle them with empathy.
A Lesson on Morale from The Office
There’s an episode in the hit sitcom The Office that does a great job of highlighting the relationship between leadership and morale. In season six, episode 10, the employees at Dunder Mifflin learn that the company is going bankrupt and that they all may lose their jobs. Naturally, their morale plummets, causing them to give up on work and speculate on their futures. The managers of the branch, Michael Scott and Jim Halpert, are at odds over how to handle their reaction. Jim insists that everyone should continue business-as-usual until corporate explains their next move. Michael, on the other hand, calls an emergency meeting, charges into the conference room and brandishes a murder mystery game. “There has been a murder!” he declares.
The employees agree to humor Michael and play his murder mystery game while Jim denounces the idea and goes back to his office. Throughout the episode, these two leaders battle back and forth over the frivolity of the game and the best way to move forward. But when accounting is instructed to stop payments to all vendors, the employees are sent into an even worse tailspin. As Michael scrambles to regain their attention, Jim gets word from corporate that the company will be insolvent by the end of the quarter. He returns to the conference room and sees the desperate looks on his coworkers faces.
“What’s the news?” Pam Beasley asks.
“Nothing yet,” he lies. But just as the room is ready to start speculating again, he interrupts them. “Well, I have some bad news,” he says, watching everyone, including Michael, wilt. But he smiles. “There has been another murder.”
Now Jim sees the truth behind Michael’s scheme. This wasn’t a work problem; it was a morale problem. Michael wasn’t being frivolous. He was helping his employees cope.
Strategies to Try:
- Create an employee or family fun day for your company to enjoy (on a regular work day, if possible).
- Create a birthday program that includes a gift card of their choice.
- Send flowers or gifts for new parents or employees on sick, family or bereavement leave (and follow up with them when they return).
Cultivate Your Leadership Skills with Dame Leadership
Reversing the results of poor or negligent leadership may take some time, but any sailor will tell you that shifting a ship’s rudder one-degree will send you to an entirely new destination! It may take some time to see the difference, but if you stay the course the benefits are powerful. Not only will you improve output and company culture, you’ll retain and attract the type of talent that can take everyone to new heights.
The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. That first step belongs to you — but you don’t have to take it alone. At Dame Leadership, we help leaders foster their skills, align with their purpose and leave their greatest legacy. We offer access to a peer group for support, coaching help for improved self-awareness, and a focused plan to build a better culture at your business.