The employee morale conundrum

Employee Morale

I read a lot about employee morale. It’s an interesting topic to me, because I don’t think it exists that much in all honesty. Respect in the workplace isn’t such a rosy picture globally, and neither is employee engagement. Without a focus on respect and engagement (or ways to measure engagement), it’s hard to think of employee morale being tremendously high.

Quick personal story. In July 2013, I was working in Houston on a gig — but at the time, I lived in Minneapolis. My wife was back in Minneapolis and I’m working this gig in Houston. The gig was miserable. I got there at 9am and did essentially nothing all day. My boss for the summer took 5-6 weeks off; I was there a total of 10. It was completely meaningless aside from, well, drawing a salary. One day I’m driving home and I’m just fed up with the whole idea of work and bosses. I’m on the phone with my mom and just start crying about everything. Jobs. Work. Meaning. Purpose. It was a true mess.

As you can probably tell from that paragraph, I’ve never felt a lot of employee morale in most gigs I’ve had. But if we all spend 10-12 hours/day at work — which is a lot of time — we want it to feel like a morale-boosting place, right? Why isn’t this happening?

The employee morale conundrum

I’ll try to explain this as cleanly and simply as I can. It’s not necessarily that executives at companies don’t care about employee morale. In a way, they do. It’s more about some of the anthropological underpinnings of how we structure work. Many people conceptualize work as “a series of tasks” for “someone in charge” and, if those tasks are done properly, perhaps a bonus/perk/advancement. That really is the simplest way to look at what “work” is. You can talk to me about mission, vision, and purpose until you’re blue in the face. I believe in those things — and some others do — but an average white-collar work does not.

At an executive level, especially in enterprise, your ability to make more for yourself — the bonus culture, if you will — has almost nothing to do with a concept like employee morale. It has to do with growth numbers, revenue, products, profits, and the like. Out of the many “P” words in business, “people” usually means less to an executive than anything. Remember: we structure companies so that by being furthest from the end user, you can make the most money. Aside from pie-in-the-sky speeches, then, why would an exec really care about customers or employees? He/she cares about employees insofar as KPIs are getting met. This is called “The Spreadsheet Mentality.” People aren’t people. They’re numbers.

Hard to arrive at employee morale from that spot.

How do we tend to discuss employee morale?

From a place that’s largely abject bullshit. Many articles about employee morale reference terms like:

  • Feedback
  • Being present
  • Eradicate email
  • Let go of jerks
  • Increase vacation days

Here’s what those bullets mean to most people running companies:

  • “Install a technology program so that our front-line managers can spend less time with direct reports and more time hitting targets”
  • “What?”
  • “LOL. But how will we know of urgent client needs?”
  • “I can’t fire all my executives.”
  • “Gahhh! Maybe at my level!”

It’s all pie-in-the-sky gag nonsense. We all know feedback is a mess at most companies. Jerks get promoted, as opposed to kicked out, left and right. Vacation days in first-world capitalist economies are a tire fire.

This isn’t the path to employee morale.

What is?

First we need to consider it from a manager’s perspective. They are stressed. Work is everywhere and their boss is yelling at them about KPIs and numbers. In a self-survival mode, their first instinct is to focus on those tasks. Employee morale seems like something you worry about when times are good and cash is flush. Who has time to worry about it every day? Busy busy busy, you know.

So. A manager can’t focus on employee morale in part because he/she is so overwhelmed with everything else going on. OK. One of the reasons for that (being overwhelmed) is a low sense of priority in your company, which frays trust by having everyone run in circles on supposedly “urgent” projects. The first step, then — which is hard — would be some sense of priority alignment.

Usually the second managerial argument is “I don’t know what to do,” as in … they don’t know what steps to take that would drive employee morale. It’s not really that hard. Just recognize people and their accomplishments. There are actually a lot of free ways to do that.

Should I hire consultants, or listen to thought leaders?

You can. And you’d probably get some good ideas. But remember the business models of those professions. It’s not necessarily about dealing with your company and its specific issues and needs. Typically, it’s about a model. This can be limiting. Plus, bringing in consultants actually often hurts employee morale. People assume firings might be coming, and internal stakeholders (employees) wonder why they couldn’t have been assigned to the problems the consultants are working on.

Does any of this stuff matter to the bottom line?

In a way, yes — and in a way, no.

No: People have felt like garbage at work — no morale — for generations, and the parent companies are still making lots of money. So in that way, no.

Want to work together?
Sending

Yes: Plenty of studies about the bottom line impact of compassion and empathy, as well as the hit you take on excessive turnover. For this research to resonate, though, executives and managers would need to think of people in terms of their unique strengths to the organization. Oftentimes, we over-focus on the negative — PIP, bad employees, etc. — and that makes it hard to manage from a place where employee morale would rise up.

What about incentives and employee morale?

True, true. Most incentive systems are pretty skewed. This often creates a situation where people don’t even know exactly what their salary represents. In such a context, all the power goes back to the company — not the employee. I personally think managers should have “managerial performance” — i.e. fostering and developing people — as an aspect of their bonus. It is hard to measure, and that would be the biggest counter-argument, but if everything that can get you paid more is a metric, then obviously people are only going to really care about metrics.

That’s going to hurt employee morale, logically.

What else you got on employee morale?

Ted Bauer