Communications Improve Morale

August 29, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — If employee morale is on the downswing in your company, recognizing the problem and identifying its underlying causes are the first steps towards solving it.

And those are steps worth taking, says Max Miner, director of educational services for The Employers Association.

Miner told the Business Journal low morale can trigger higher absenteeism, reluctance to cooperate, unwillingness to learn, and displays of frustration among employees.

Donn Smith, director of business development at Varnum Consulting LLC, said other morael warnings include: decreased productivity, increased numbers of employee-manager disputes; reduced work quality, output and performance, increased customer complaints, increased turnover among highly valued employees, and decreased excitement and urgency on the job.

Smith points to another telltale sign: formation of small “rebel” groups of employees united by a common cause.

One sign that’s often ignored is whispering and gossiping, said Dee Steeby, a human resources specialist with Rightsource. She said clock-watching, tardiness and leaving work early are other indicators that morale may be dropping.

Miner said lack of trust in the employer is a huge detriment to morale and often results from some action that employees don’t understand.

The reason may be that the employer just doesn’t want to share information or maybe doesn’t feel he can, Miner explained, but either way, the employee feels frustrated and cut out of the loop.

Steeby, who has worked in both union and non-union firms, said one of the biggest morale-busters is when a company makes changes without consulting employees about how it will affect them.

“One of the things that affects morale hugely is a feeling that there are a lot of closed-door meetings, and you have no clue as to why and as to what is going on,” Steeby added.

“It makes people tend to get very frightened, especially in this age of downsizing. It creates mistrust.”

Smith said a number of factors can lower morale: reductions in pay and 401K contributions, reduced profit-sharing, politics within the organization, poor manager skills and training, and lack of effective leadership at the top.

Another thing hitting employees hard these days, he said, is having to fund more and more of their health care coverage.

Steeby, Miner and Smith all agreed that poor communication is often at the root of morale problems.

One of the first things employers can do to boost morale, they believe, is to open up the lines of communication.

Supervisors attuned to their organizations are cognizant of employees’ concerns and frustrations, Miner said, and they’re the best kind of supervisors to have. A competent supervisor routinely and effectively communicates with employees, is aware of what’s happening and is sensitive to employees’ needs, he said.

A poor supervisor-employee relationship, on the other hand, can bring down an organization quickly, Miner noted.

“Too often we don’t train our supervisors on how to be empathetic and listen. I think that is probably one of the key factors in managing the relationship between employers and employees.”

Steeby said management style has a lot of bearing on morale. Employers or supervisors who micromanage, watch employees all the time and have an “I’m the boss, do as I say” attitude serve only to depress morale, she said.

Employers and supervisors who are out of touch with employees’ feelings and needs have the same effect.

As she sees it, employers and managers need to show a sincere interest in the work employees do, recognize the load they’re carrying and have an awareness of each employee’s personal goals.

“More emphasis should be on, ‘What are your goals and how can we help you reach them. How can you best benefit the company and how can the company benefit you?’ It comes back to that team concept.”

Specialists at Varnum Consulting advise that employers identify the causes of low morale in their workplace by talking with managers to find out what’s going on. An employee survey can help uncover some of the underlying causes, too, and that further serves to involve employees in the process, Smith said.

Then employers need to consolidate all the responses, verify the results and embark on a plan of action designed to turn things around, he said.

“The message is: ‘We’re looking at improving the company and we want your help in doing that,’” Smith explained. “That gives the employee a sense of ownership in what’s happening.

“Once you start this process you must continue. It’s critical that you do not abandon the process. If you’re going out there and giving employees false hope that you’re going to try to fix things and you don’t follow through, you risk even further damage.”

He said a company also has to devise a way to measure the results of the process in order to determine whether there has actually been improvement in morale. Along the way, identify what works and what doesn’t and make changes as needed, he said.

Varnum Consulting recommends that employers bring in outside help because it brings in “fresh eyes.”

“Oftentimes employees may feel more free to speak to someone from the outside,” Smith observed.

“An outside person has no bias or axe to grind. Outside people do this for a living and have worked with a lot of different companies and may be able to start to identify the issues much more quickly because they’ve done it before.”

So how can employers boost morale?

Miner recommends employers openly and honestly share information with employees about what is happening in the company and why it’s happening — especially during economic downturns.

Furthermore, he pointed out, asking employees for their input is a way saying: “Your ideas are important and we need them to improve.” He believes that is absolutely key to keeping employees happy.

Smith said the best course of action is for employers to share as much information about the company as they possibly can, as often as possible.

Steeby believes one of the most basic things an employer or manager can do is to recognize an employee’s contribution by saying “Thank you.” The use of “please” and “thank you” is a common courtesy that goes a long way in improving morale, she said.

Steeby, Smith and Miner all advocate showing appreciation for employees, recognizing their individual contributions and praising a job well done. Simply let them know they are valued.

Show appreciation with a verbal pat on the back that is meaningful, whether it is delivered in person, in public or by handwritten note, Miner suggested.

“To me that’s the significant part of it — that it’s meaningful,” he said. “If the behavior was something that gained your recognition and you want to see it repeated, then praise that behavior. Statistics will show you that one of the things that people want as much as anything is to be recognized by their manager as competent.”

Miner also advocates making work more meaningful.

“You can take an environment that’s not necessarily the most exciting environment to walk into everyday, and with some creativity and a little bit of lightheartedness, you can make that environment exciting and inviting for people. When you really show the organization to be a human organization, you really gain a lot in the way of credibility and respect for the organization.”

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