Why, logically, employee morale is often in the toilet at most companies

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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

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?

  • 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?

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?

Does any of this stuff matter to the bottom line?

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.

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?

That’s going to hurt employee morale, logically.

What else you got on employee morale?

Written by

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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