Mike Collier remembers the moment well. He was sitting at his desk in a Utah County office building when the boss came in. He says the look on his leader’s face was priceless—lost, forlorn, helpless. His boss then said, “I don’t know what to do.”
For Collier (not his real name, as he wishes to remain anonymous), his boss’ admission was a relief, a renewal of hope in Collier’s mind that perhaps, for the morale in his office, there was indeed life after death.
“It was the beginning of a downturn for the economy,” he remembers, “but oddly, an upturn for our staff. I felt we nipped it in the bud, just in time, before things could not be reversed.”
Collier was lucky. Unfortunately, many other employers don’t see the problem of an unhealthy work environment soon enough. It goes undiagnosed, either due to the ignorance or pride of the leaders, or both. With increasing financial pressure on firms to reduce their workforce size, take away benefits and suspend raises, the morale in the workplace has never been lower for this generation.
So, how can executives stop the bleeding? First, by recognizing it. Then dealing with it by going to the source itself.
Making a Diagnosis
“The biggest thing you see when these situations arise is that productivity goes down,” says Pollyanna Pixton of Accelinnova, a consulting firm that helps businesses find ways to unleash the talent and innovation of their employees. “They start to come in late, leave early or go home sick. Their body language is very obvious, and they usually have a hard time looking their supervisors in the eye.”
Mary Cosgrove, the founder of Salt Lake-based What’s Working Well and professor of human resources at Webster University, agrees.
“The symptoms are frustration and anger, and you can tell when an employee is not engaged,” she says.
“There’s a disconnect between what they believe should be happening in a company and what is happening. There’s a breaking point where people can’t do it anymore—when things start to fall apart.”
Perhaps those observations are easy to make simply by looking around the office. Dealing with them is another matter.
Pixton and Cosgrove, along with Clark Merkley, president of Utah County-based consulting firm By Monday, say Collier’s boss took an important first step—recognizing that leaders often don’t have all the answers.
“It really involves two things—and both need feedback from employees,” Merkley says. “If the company has a true open-door policy, then feedback is easy to obtain. A supervisor who employees trust can gather a lot of that information in the quickest and easiest way—through direct conversation. Those employees’ answers, particularly when a supervisor can look into their eyes and study their body language, can be very valuable. Another option is less direct, but perhaps offers more security to employees—a periodic survey.”
Merkley says such surveys, like those that can be created on internet sites like Survey Monkey, needn’t be complicated—simply one to three questions that allow for quick responses. They allow employees to offer some feedback while at the same time painting an outline for employers of what their employees are thinking or feeling. They also allow a company to create a second survey geared for longer answers if necessary.
“You can’t just sit in your office as the boss with your eyes closed,” he says. “You need to look for ways to address the problems or challenges that you’re facing with your employees—ways that are creative, potentially inexpensive and that will actually have an effect. As important, things you can do immediately to show your honest intent.”
Finding a Cure
Pixton says many cases of low morale center around ownership and empowerment.
“Empowerment can only happen if people are trusted, and conversely, when they feel they are trusted,” she says. “Leaders have to step back, which can be difficult.”
She says people are motivated by three things—collaboration on decisions, choices of what they’re doing and challenging work.
“Collaborate with the employee, get his or her feedback and suggestions as you orchestrate a strategy. The more you can let an employee have a choice in what they do and how they do it, the better off you’ll be,” she says. “Often that can’t be done, as business decisions and strategies are market-driven, but you can still ask for their opinions on how to achieve the company’s goals.”
Challenging, interesting work is also important, she adds. “Architects always have interesting work, but drafters can also be included in that design process if you’ll let them be, for example.”
Cosgrove points out that seeing frustration or anger in an employee is sometimes a good thing, “because it means they still care. Too many times, employees are in what I call R.I.P. mode—retired in place. They’re there, but their eyes are gone. This is when they pass through to ‘acceptance,’ the place where they feel ‘nothing is going to change, I’m just holding on until something else comes along.’”
She says talking to employees about what they are feeling has to be done carefully.
“It can change an organization, because if you ask your employees and don’t do anything with the information or suggestions they tell you, it’s worse than if you’d never asked at all,” she says. “You need to set up expectations that what they say can make a difference.”
In Merkley’s experience, employee dissatisfaction often involves, first, wages. That is followed by flexibility as a close second. “[Flexibility] even exceeds health insurance,” he says. “Giving a little more diversity to them in their work creates a bit more satisfaction. I think surveying your employees at least annually is critical to keeping office morale and spirits up.”
“Oftentimes, it’s not economics,” Cosgrove adds. “Ask them to tell you more about what’s really on their minds. Ask ‘if you were the boss, if you were in charge for the day, what would you do, how would you solve this?’”
Crafting those types of questions can take some time, she says, but asking them is critical to help avoid “workplace drama that’s really unnecessary. Good communication with your staff and supervisors is really the key. We tend to make it complicated when it really doesn’t need to be.”
The consensus solution—talking to employees, asking them what’s working and what’s not, and how they would suggest solving problems. Pixton says leaders themselves can’t usually be involved in that, for many employees are fearful of losing jobs or being punished in some way.
“So you should sometimes have that data collected anonymously or have a non-human resource person do it,” she says. “Usually when that happens, the highest priority for them is to get something that they, the employees, don’t already have. Remember, employees know better than anyone else what will work. They know the solutions, but are seldom empowered to fix them.”
Merkley suggests that one short-term solution is simple appreciation for jobs well done.
“I’ve used something I call the standing ovation,” he says. “Any time one of our clients, partners or coworkers identifies something you did that was extraordinary, we’ll give them a standing ovation, spontaneously, in the office. It doesn’t take long, doesn’t cost a dime, but generates so much good feeling.”
When an employee feels important, they take figurative ownership in their job and their company. “They can become indispensable, because they know better than anyone where the profits are and how they can help magnify them,” Merkley says. “Diagnosing is important, but healing is more important. You’ve got to act in some way to those concerns of your employees, and it starts by expressing appreciation, sincerely.”