Five Principles for Boosting Morale Authentically
CEO, Founder of The Granger Network
All workplaces are subject to a certain degree of ebb and flow in employee morale. In these trying times, maintaining morale is both more challenging and more important for leaders to do.
So, the question becomes: How do leaders boost morale? And how can they do so authentically, in a way that amounts to more than mere window dressing?
1. ACCEPTANCE OF WHAT IS SO
Somewhat counter-intuitively, generating high morale begins with leaning into the situation that has morale lacking in the first place. Leaders accomplish this with their colleagues not by playing the cheerleader or maintaining a “rah-rah” attitude in the face of adversity, but rather, by explicitly naming and creating space for what’s so. This looks like bringing a high level of listening to each interaction, which in turns allows people to bring their whole selves into work. Remarkably, you hearing what’s happening in the background for people–their frustration about not being acknowledged or challenges with childcare–actually frees them up to focus on their work. As we described in a recent post, short mood checks at the beginning of meetings is an effective way to generate this sort of acceptance on your team.
2. OPEN AND DIRECT COMMUNICATION
Open and direct communication is critical for authentic morale building. This means not sugarcoating harsh realities or avoiding the difficult topics. These strategies may feel less awkward for you in the moment, but they are ultimately off-putting, infantilizing, and potentially infuriating for your team. Rather, as much as possible, be clear and honest. In the face of cutbacks, furloughs, or any sort of high-anxiety business challenge that might impact morale, directness is both needed and appreciated. Here’s where we are. Here’s where you stand. Here’s what we can predict given our current trajectory, and here’s what we can’t. Here’s what you can do. From this place of transparency, a powerful conversation can emerge regarding where the organization is headed, and how all members of the team can support each other in getting there.
3. CONNECTING TO THE BIGGER OUTCOME
When morale is low, it can be difficult for teams to accomplish their priorities effectively and efficiently, let alone with smiles on their faces. However, when those same tasks and projects are contextualized within a larger goal that lights them up, it becomes possible to tap into resolve that wasn’t there before, and a genuine, authentic satisfaction in the work emerges. One of the most supportive things a leader can do in the face of low morale is to maintain this context and to remind others of the worthwhile goal that they are working in service of.
4. CLARITY OF NEXT STEPS
A tremendous source of diminished morale is lack of clarity. This is a tactical question. What exactly am I accountable for? When am I accountable for it? How does my day-to-day work fit into the big picture? Do I have the information and resources I need to get the job done? Too often individuals feel afraid to ask for this clarity, thinking that they should already know the answer. Or, they may feel there’s too much going on to slow down and ask for the clarity that they need. As the saying goes, sometimes in order to speed up we have to slow down. Ambiguity is problematic on the best of days. In the midst of low morale and uncertainty, it can be debilitating. In these moments, a leader can provide immense relief by establishing a clear and specific (even if short-term) understanding of what’s next. This narrows the ambiguity into something we can control and can often have the effect of lifting people’s spirits and getting them back in the saddle.
5. PERSONAL HUMAN CONNECTION
It is important to ensure your employees feel a personal, human connection with each other and with you. Feeling part of a team and connected to something bigger than ourselves comes from sharing and vulnerability. While many of us are working virtually, this element of team morale may be a particularly challenging one to address. Already fatigued from being on Zoom all day, no one wants to spend an extra hour chatting on the screen, but they do want to feel connected. Look for what kind of social, human-to-human engagement would work for your team.
If you are local to one another, consider a socially distanced gathering in a front yard or public park. Seeing people’s faces and hearing unmodulated voices will go a long way. If you and your team are further apart, a WhatsApp group designated just for sharing (to which there is no obligation to respond), can make a difference. Lastly, make sure connection is a part of every business interaction you have: share vulnerably so your team gets to know you; ask open-ended questions so you get to know them; stop business monologues and request input and suggestions. Finding a way to create connection will increase understanding and energy.
Morale-building isn’t easy–but it is critical. A box of donuts. Free massages. To be sure, these are nice gestures, but they aren’t a substitute for the fundamental work of boosting morale. The five steps outlined above require a higher degree of energy, patience, and intentionality. And, when we invest in our teams this way, they are able to partner with us to build a culture that can weather challenges head-on, authentically caring for one another and the company mission.