The Mystery of Morale

Mar 1st, 2013 | By | Category: Nick Kemper's Blog

Morale is one of those work conditions that falls into the same category as motivation. It’s mysterious. Where does it come from? How do you get it? How did it get so bad? Come to think of it, it’s also in the same category as the flu.

If you ever go to a staff meeting of any kind, morale is often the topic of discussion. It’s one of those things that managers and supervisors talk about as if they can control it or influence it in some way. They delude each other with ideas like, “Maybe we can plant flower seeds in coffee cups and give them to each employee so they can nurture the flower and watch it grow.” Not thinking that the employee will look at the cup later and think, “Did he just give me a cup of dirt?” Managers and supervisors talk about it because it’s a smokescreen they can create that gives the illusion that they are working on something that will have an impact on the successful operation of the business, rather than attend to the hard work of removing obstacles and training workers properly (translation: give them the tools and the knowledge to do their work well).

I was at a staff meeting recently where for about the 18th week in a row we talked about how to improve the morale in a production department. Most ideas involve spending money to make the employee feel better, or substituting something that costs little or nothing but achieves the same result. These can be bonuses, for instance, for hitting goals, or something like what I did once — bleach my hair blonde when my drivers hit a production goal. The way the staff meeting works is that no one prepares for the meeting, so a lot of time is spent thinking of ideas at the meeting, and then as each idea is presented, everyone else in the group shoots it down. I’ll tell you what’s a morale-killer — having to think of ways to improve other people’s morale all the time.

At the tow company I used to manage, I interpreted the morale problem to be so great that I actually formed a Morale Committee. Each member was a Morale Officer, in keeping with the military theme we had. We would meet a couple of times a month to plan fun activities, brainstorm about ways to help particular employees and assign tasks like getting birthday cards and cakes. I don’t know if it helped morale, but it probably helped a few people to see that we cared enough to address it. I wouldn’t count it as time well spent.

At another company I worked for, we actually entertained the idea of one of our management group’s main goals for the year to be to “make everyone happy.”

After one of these recent staff meetings we had an unseasonably warm, sunny day. I was out in the warehouse and one of the shop workers came in. When he opened the door, I noticed how nice it was outside so I made a comment about it. He was all smiles and said, “I know. I guess that’s why everyone is so giddy out in the shop.” You could hear music and laughing through the wall.

It made me laugh, because we had just been talking the day before about how mopey everyone was. Hello? It’s WINTER. In Oregon it rains most of the winter, and the temperature likes to hover around 38 degrees, so we don’t get that nice, bright, white snow to play in. The shop heater barely makes a difference out in the production area, so who would be in a good mood working in those conditions? A sunny day came along, and presto, morale improved.

Let’s not make such a big deal about morale. I have news for business owners and managers: not everyone loves their job. Some people just need the money. That doesn’t mean they do crappy work. They might come in, speak to no one, smile at nothing, do their work and go home. Does that mean they have a morale problem? No.

So, we can all agree to stop trying to improve morale, okay?

There is one thing, however, that supervisors and managers can do, and that is hurt morale. Let’s paint a picture: Within the organization, there are several different concurrent processes going on at any time, and within those processes we find:

• Obstacles holding workers back from doing their job

• Workers who are trained poorly

• Processes that compete for resources

• Processes that work against each other

• Processes that don’t exist or aren’t followed, it’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants time, all the time

• Management ducks hopelessly out of row formation

• Supervisors and managers meeting for hours at a time to discuss “employee morale.”

Now, here’s another news flash: workers aren’t stupid. If they look around and they perceive that the powers that be don’t have their you-know-what together, one of two things happen:

1. If they care about their work, they start to lose hope.

2. If they don’t care of their work, they start to take advantage.

Now you have a morale problem.

My advice: When the word “morale” comes up, instead of trying to make it better by giving it a shot of Nyquil, go back and fix the source of the problem. Don’t treat the symptoms. Train people well, give them systems that work, remove obstacles and let them run with it. A worker who is part of a successful operation, who knows their job well and contributes, has excellent morale that arises organically, the way it is intended to arise. Like a flower growing out of a coffee cup.