So Your Company Has Low Morale

You are a CEO. You’ve just done your employee satisfaction survey, and the results have come back; morale is terrible! Everyone is looking for a new job!

And you have no idea why.

If you don’t know why your company has a morale problem, then you are part of the morale problem.

You can’t claim vague understanding with phrases like “last year was a busy year” or “people are just whinging”. If you do, then you are part of the morale problem.

If you can’t identify one small thing to change to improve morale, then you are part of the morale problem.

Because if you don’t know one small thing to change, it’s because you have stopped people from talking to you with ideas. No company is perfect. There is always something small that you can improve.

So why aren’t the ideas reaching you? Either you are an unapproachable monster, or you have protected yourself from reality by appointing unapproachable monsters as your direct reports. Unless you are a new CEO, then it’s probably both.

If you want to stop being part of the morale problem you need to do several things.

First, get coaching on your listening skills and learn how to be more approachable. Because the next steps won’t work if you continue to be unapproachable. You will continue to be the morale problem.

If one of your staff tells you about a problem, stop treating that member of staff as being the problem for reporting it. You need to move past Denial, Anger and Bargaining move straight to Acceptance. Unless you accept the gift of feedback from your staff, you will continue to cause a morale problem. Even if the problem they have described isn’t actually a problem, the perception of there being a problem is a problem in itself.

You cannot afford to have cognitive dissonance about how good a manager you are, and assume that therefore all the problems must be the fault of your staff. You are the CEO. You are responsible for all the problems. That’s why you get the big bucks; because the buck stops here.

Your organisation has Thermoclines Of Truth — layers through which no problems get reported upwards, so you think everything is fine. Break the Thermoclines by creating ways in which ideas and problems can reach you.

Your direct reports have not been dealing with or passing ideas or problems to you. The problems are getting filtered out of management reports as they come up the reporting lines. That is why you have a morale problem.

Go to the shop floor to meet the staff regularly and ask what they are working on. Eat lunch in the same canteen as the rest of your staff. To begin with, they will fear you, because you are seen as not wanting to hear the truth. Don’t take managers with you for your shop floor walks or lunches, because their very presence will stop people from talking freely, and you will never break the Thermoclines Of Truth. The shop floor visits are not photo opportunities. They are a chance to learn about your business by getting your hands dirty and meeting staff. Turning these trips into photo opportunities for the company newsletter will increase cynicism, not reduce it.

Have a corporate Suggestion Box. To begin with, your staff will still be afraid of repercussions for reporting problems and ideas, because until now, your company culture has been punishing or ignoring anyone who speaks up. People will be scared of retaliation for making their managers look bad. Your Suggestion Box needs to allow “anonymous” suggestions.

You will be tempted to want real names so you can “reward” staff for participating in the “Suggestion Box” introduction phase. People are afraid. It needs to be possible to make Suggestions anonymously. Offering rewards for making good suggestions is a good way to show you are serious about fixing things, but the best way to turn the Suggestion Box project into a morale boost is to actually show that you read suggestions and that you act on them.

The Suggestion Box can be a physical box, located in a place away from surveillance cameras or watching eyes, where people can drop in a note. Maybe a stairwell. Don’t place it in the canteen where anyone who drops something in will be spotted and called a “suck-up”.

The Suggestion Box can be a website. Don’t require a log on, or mandatory name to complete the suggestion form. Consider hosting the form on a third party survey website, where staff can have some confidence that they are not being spied on when they make their suggestions.

Consolidate the feedback you receive. Some of the feedback you receive will be cynical or offensive. You cannot afford to let this stop you. The negativity is because you have low morale in your organisation. The way to cancel out the cynicism and negativity is to show that you are actually taking the Suggestion Box seriously.

Cherry pick some low hanging fruit. Repaint that wall, fix that light fitting. Wonder why basic maintenance like that hasn’t been done already, and what else your managers have allowed to decay.

Consolidate the suggestions onto some kind of web site, where you can show that the ideas have been received, show some level of priority for dealing with them, and show who has been assigned to implement them, or why you are not implementing them. Even the way you reject ideas can have an impact on morale. Knowing that the idea has been reviewed and an alternative solution is coming is useful. But if an alternative solution is coming, make sure to show who is accountable, and what date it will be done by.

Do not assign responsibility for changes back to the person who suggested them. That person doesn’t necessarily have the skills, authority or budget to carry out the work required — and giving someone an responsibility for a task with no resources will decrease morale. Turning the Suggestion Box into a way to be assigned impossible tasks will increase cynicism.

Visit your suggestion list regularly, adding in the new ideas each week or month. Show which ideas have been implemented, to show that progress is being made. Recognise staff when suggestions have worked, if they were brave enough to share their name. Deal with managers who have been failing and causing the moral problem.

Of course, you won’t do any of this, because you are too busy.

You ARE the morale problem.

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