I noticed a note on a meeting agenda that said, address low morale.
What the heck does “low morale” actually mean, I thought to myself? And, then I wondered, have I ever actually ever seen a company bounce back from “low morale?”
To me this is a catch all phrase that’s applied when managers have heard that something isn’t quite right with “the people” in a company but no one really takes the time to listen or understand the problem.
Instead, after some initial investigation, a “solution” is presented (usually money, restructuring, external consultants, or mandated zorbing) so the company can move on.
This made me wonder: Is it possible to bounce back once a company is talking about low-morale?
Is the problem truly low morale?
This story comes from a team that worked in a small AI startup with 30-people. The company had been floundering for 2-years and had not yet found a way to deliver more than a few demos and a proof-of-concept to potential customers.
This team realized that something was missing but attributed the problem to culture (or lack thereof). In response to this assumption, the team took the initiative to define a set of values for the company.
Because it was a small company, it was easy to work with everyone to identify a healthy set of values. They then worked backwards from their list to hone in on a few that best represented their culture.
But, after the initial work, these values were largely ignored by high level management. Further, a hypocrisy started to surface: managers said they believed one thing, but in reality did something different. This began to form rifts that started to fester.
This tells me the problem isn’t low morale. Low morale is a symptom of a much larger problem.
What is really happening?
The initial floundering that prompted the “values activity” was caused by a lack of clear direction from the top leadership level. This is pretty common in a start-up, especially when individuals have difficulty making the transition from entrepreneur to leader. This is no one’s fault, these are simply two different archetypes.
The situation was further exasperated by a VP who frequently changed product direction and pulled people from critical development projects to focus on new ideas “for the sake of the company.” Because this was a start-up, he justified his bi-weekly schizophrenic shifts by saying, “this is normal for a start-up.”
More worryingly, he further blamed the failure to deliver on the inability of teams to code his ideas fast enough. After many cycles of this, frustration started to bubble up in meetings and in day-to-day conversations. There was a linch-pin moment when this VP stood up in a town hall and threatened to fire people. Sadly, when other VPs became aware of these escalating behaviours, very little lasting action was taken.
A confusing reorg was announced; but this was simply a shifting of seats without any significant change, and the problematic VP was given more control over the work done by development teams.
Employees began to say that people in key positions didn’t have the courage needed to make change; they felt bullied and ignored. This is when the “low morale” conversations started to happen.
And, let’s be clear. The problem here isn’t low morale. It is a lack of accountable leadership. This lack of accountability led to a breakdown in trust at all levels in the company.
There’s a predictable outcome
This story is disappointingly common. And, what happened next is cookie-cutter predictable. After the linch-pin moment, people quickly started to leave the company at a rate of 2-people per week; for a 30-people company an avalanche of walkouts is devastating.
The first people to go were the most passionate and lively people. Once the energy left the office, the next round of people to leave were the folks that had been there the longest. With them went their tribal knowledge and understanding of the coding and organizational structures.
Next, HR had difficulty finding new people to fill roles because word had spread to the development community that this was a terrible place to work.
To “motivate” employees, the company announced bonuses for everyone who remained. This had absolutely no impact on morale, and the last time I talked to those who were left, they stated that they were waiting for their bonus before walking out.
Can a company recover?
If it’s a team that has low morale, they can certainly recover quickly as long as empathetic leadership listens and is able to move quickly and decisively before a problem begins to fester and cause deeper wounds.
At the company level, if you’re asking the “low morale” question, it’s likely too late.
Still, if there are whispers of problems, people in top positions need to start investigating immediately. They need to step up, be present, be transparent, and really listen to employees. Great leaders use empathy, integrity, and courageous conversations to resolve situations like the one above.
And, knowing there is a problem is one thing, but stepping up and doing the right thing is critical. If this can’t be done, then empower and give voice to the people who can truly do what is necessary to help the company recover.
The best companies are the ones that never get to the point of asking the low-morale question. This is because at key points on their journey, leadership asked the right questions, had critical conversations, and trusted their people to do what is right. And, when they fail, leaders own their failure.
These companies never need to “recover from low-morale” because creating meaningful, high-value moments, and a quality work environment is already baked into the company’s DNA.