There have been plenty of instances of organisations lately in which bad news can only have damaged employee morale and confidence and had a negative impact on overall effectiveness and efficiency.
Cases in point include the four figure job losses experienced at Ford and the BBC’s handling of investigations into sexual abuse claims surrounding Sir Jimmy Savile. The reality is, however, that a good number of less high-profile things can also cause team morale to dip. These range from restructuring, weak leadership and poor communication to cuts in staff benefits, the loss of a major contract or client and a general lack of worker empowerment. Although people will often continue to work diligently even if morale is low, excitement and enthusiasm will be scarce, conflict frequent, energy visibly reduced and quality, innovation and productivity will also suffer. But the most important first step for HR directors to take is to ensure that they and their senior management colleagues recognise the warning signs, whether individual teams or the organisation as a whole are facing any of the scenarios above or not. Warning signs include:
- Obvious unhappiness
- Rising numbers of complaints about work or other team members
- Increased absenteeism
- Growing levels of conflict between team members
- Insubordination or unruliness
- A disorganised work environment
- Increased employee turnover
- Decreased productivity
- A general lack of enthusiasm.
Because individuals’ morale is directly affected by their managers, it is imperative for you to act as a positive role model. If your own morale or self-confidence has taken a hit, it's vital that you work on tackling your own outlook and attitude first. To do this, start by identifying why your own morale is low and come up with ways to change the situation. Often this starts with action. Focus on positive goals that you can work towards and ensure that you exude confidence and rational optimism as you work towards them, even if you don’t feel it. Remember that your people are always watching you and if you feel positive and confident, they will too. Quick wins also help to build confidence, both yours and others. But there are also a number of strategies that can help you to reconstruct morale at both the team and the organisational level. The first thing to do, however, is understand the nature of the problem in order to recommend which will best fit your organisation’s individual requirements. Such strategies include: 1. Ensure that managers develop a positive relationship with their teams Morale will be highest if team members feel close to their managers, so encourage leaders to practice ‘management by walking around’. This approach will enable them to ‘touch base’ with staff on a regular basis, which will help to re-establish trust and build rapport. It also makes it easier to get a feel for people’s concerns, anxieties and information requirements. Lack of appreciation is often cited as one of the root causes of low morale. So encourage managers to give everyone regular feedback and do whatever they can to recognise their workers’ achievements – which can be as simple as saying "thank you" for a job well done. 2. Provide learning and development opportunities Another way of boosting morale, especially after a round of layoffs, is by helping people to develop their skills. As a senior HR professional, ensure that individual and team training needs assessments are in place, and explore practical, conventional and non-conventional ways of developing an individual’s expertise. The HR team will then be in a position to offer learning and development opportunities that will hopefully help people to feel more secure and committed to their employer. Cross-training can be another useful way of building morale and improving productivity, but be sure to explain the reasons for its introduction properly. Otherwise, some people may see it as a sign that layoffs are on the way. 3. Improve communication activities Poor communication can be another common root cause of low morale as it creates a rich and fertile environment for potentially damaging rumours to take root. Work with the senior management team to ensure that everyone receives accurate, timely information, perhaps through a weekly email or via regular meetings. Such activities are especially important if sales are down or the company is restructuring or downsizing. But ensure that in the case of more significant announcements, communications are co-ordinated in terms of timing, message content and tone across the organisation. Also remind managers that good communication is about a two-way flow of information. This means that they need to encourage their teams to come to them at any time with questions or concerns and listen actively to what they are told. This approach will enable them and/or the organisation as a whole to respond in a timely manner. 4. Set SMART goals Morale and motivation can fall if people are unclear about what they should be doing or what their managers’ expectations of them are. This lack of direction is disheartening and disorienting. As a result, ensure that the organisation's mission, vision and short- and long-term plans are clearly communicated and that each team and individual member is aware of how their work contributes towards them. Also make certain that specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely goals are set for everyone, so that each individual has clear, achievable aims and objectives to help motivate them to hit the targets set – for themselves, their team and for the organisation as a whole. 5. Give staff more autonomy An effective way to build up confidence in others is to give staff more autonomy. Encourage managers to delegate tasks and responsibilities and push their team members to work towards challenging but achievable goals. Also when someone achieves success, encourage managers to celebrate it. 6. Introduce talent management strategies When times are tough, it can both be difficult to bring in talented new recruits and retain your best people as they will find it the easiest to get new jobs and are most likely to walk. Therefore, employ talent management strategies to ensure that the people you are keen to keep hold of remain interested in the organisation and can see a personally-rewarding career progression path ahead of them. Finally, remember to keep your eye out for poor morale as it’s easy to miss the signs, particularly if you’re working hard to manage a crisis. James Manktelow is chief executive of online training provider, Mind Tools.