Leadership Barometer 126 Morale and Motivation

Every manager I have ever met, including myself, would appreciate higher morale and motivation among his or her team. After all, these two attitudes lead directly to productivity and employee satisfaction, which are pivotal in sustaining a healthy business.

Many managers have a stated goal to improve morale, motivation, or both.  I contend the mindset inherent in setting goals for these items shows a lack of understanding that actually will limit the achievement of both.

If you try to improve morale by having picnics and “hat days,” you are likely to fail.

The reason is that morale and motivation are not objectives; they are the outcomes of a great or a lousy culture.  A better approach is to spend your time and energy trying to improve the environment to include higher trust, then higher morale and motivation will magically happen.

It makes no difference whether the team is physically together, working from home, or in some hybrid configuration.  The level of morale and motivation will be a direct function of the trust level you find within the group and with their leaders.

If leaders try to drive for higher morale, it may sound to the employees like the famous saying, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Real Example

I have seen a group of people at work with such low motivation, there seemed to be no way to get any work done. If a manager dared try to speak to a group of employees, they would heckle or just pay no attention.

Nothing the leader said or did had much impact on the employees, so in desperation, the manager would stoop to threats.  This would elicit a half-hearted groan and some compliance for a time, but the quality of product would suffer, and the gains were only temporary.

I saw that same group of workers six months down the line after putting in a really good leader.  The atmosphere was entirely different. The employees showed by their body language that they were eager to do a great job. 

If there was a dirty or difficult job and the leader asked for volunteers, half a dozen hands would go up immediately.  When they were at work, they resembled the seven dwarfs whistling while they worked, rather than slaves in the belly of a ship who were forced to row.

How was that one leader able to accomplish such a turnaround in just six months?  The leader focused on changing the underlying culture to one of high trust rather than just demanding improvement in the performance indicators.  The motivation and morale improved by orders of magnitude as a result rather than because they were the objective. Let’s look at some specific steps this manager took early in her term that turned things around quickly: 

Built trust – She immediately let people know she was not there to play games with them. She was serious about making improvements in their existence and had that foremost in her mind. She built a real culture where people felt safe to come to her with any issue and know they would not be insulted or punished.

She showed by her attitude that she was a servant leader who was interested in the well-being of the workers. 

Improved teamwork – She invested in some teamwork training for the entire group, offsite. These workshops made a big difference in breaking down barriers and teaching people how to get along better in the pressure cooker of normal organizational life. 

Empowered others – She made sure the expectations of all workers were known to them but did not micromanage the process. She let people figure out how to accomplish tasks and got rid of several arcane and restrictive rules that were holding people back from giving their maximum discretionary effort. 

Reinforced progress – The atmosphere became lighter and more fun for the workers as they started to feel more successful and really enjoyed the creative reinforcement activities set up by their leader.  She let the workers plan their own celebrations within some reasonable guidelines and participated in the activities herself. 

Promoted the good work – the manager held a series of meetings with higher management to showcase the progress in an improved culture.  The workers were involved in planning and conducting these meetings, so they got the benefit of the praise directly from top management. 

Set tough goals – It is interesting that the manager did not set weak or easy goals. Instead, she set aggressive stretch goals and explained her faith that the team was capable of achieving them. At first, people seemed to gulp at the enormity of her challenges, but that soon gave way to elation as the teams reached and even exceeded several milestones. 

Support – The manager supported people when they had personal needs, and made sure the organization received the funding needed to buy better equipment and tools. 

Firm but fair – The manager was consistent in her application of discipline. People respected her for not playing favorites and for making some tough choices that may have been unpopular at the moment but were right in the long run. Her strength was evident in decisions every day, so people respected her.

This manager turned a near-hopeless workforce into a cracker-jack team of highly motivated individuals in six months. Morale was incredibly high. Even though improving morale was not her objective, it was the outcome of her actions to improve the culture.

If you want to be one of the elite leaders of our time, regardless of how difficult things appear, work on the culture of your organization rather than driving a program to improve morale and motivation. Develop trust and treat people the right way, and you will see a remarkable transformation in an amazingly short period of time.   

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


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