Can you measure morale accurately simply by walking into a room and observing people? I think you can, but it can be a bit tricky.
In my courses, I often ask participants to tell me the best way to measure morale. Most of them come up with the idea of an employee survey or some other form of lagging indicator, like turnover rate.
While both of these techniques are useful, I think there is a far faster and more accurate way to measure the morale of people in an organization, and you can do it while there is still time to take corrective actions. All you have to do is observe the individuals, and their body language will give ample clues as to their morale.
Recognize that interpreting body language takes a lot of practice, and it is not an exact science. The best practice is to look for clusters of signals rather than interpret one specific expression or gesture as a fool-proof indication of a person’s emotion.
Here are seven ways to measure morale by watching what people do.
If a person is standing with one hip raised and a challenging look on his face, that is a sign of a poor attitude. It is often a hostile gesture where the individual has a chip on his shoulder and is daring you to knock it off.
If people are sitting in a slouched-over configuration, that may be simple fatigue or it may be they feel beaten down and fearful when managers are around.
If you walk into a room and people are sitting around a table leaning back with their arms folded, you can immediately sense these folks are dug in, grumpy, and not happy.
The most sensitive areas for posture are in the shoulders and the position of the spine. I once walked into a restaurant to meet up with a colleague for a chat. She was sitting in a booth with her back to me and did not see me approach. All I could see of her was the back of her head and the upper 6 inches of her shoulders. I accurately determined before seeing her face or hearing her voice that she was in crisis mode due to some personal situation.
When people are together, watch the gestures. If they are doing a lot of finger pointing as they speak, that is likely a hostile environment. If their hands are most often open with palms up, that means they are open to ideas and suggestions.
Watch to see if the gestures remain the same when managers come into the room. For example, if people are having an animated conversation about some outside event but clam up both verbally and with gesturing when the manager walks in, it may be a sign of trouble. Check into it in order to get an accurate assessment.
Hostile or vulgar words or gestures are likely indications of poor morale. The best display of good attitudes is if the gesturing remains the same when a manager approaches. People are comfortable and not threatened by this leader. When groups of people “stiffen up” as a leader approaches, it usually means they are not comfortable with the leader for some reason. See if you can determine if this is the case.
There are thousands of facial expressions that have meaning, and many of these are specific to the culture in which they are used. The eyes and mouth hold the most information about attitude. For example, when a manager is giving information, if people roll their eyes, the meaning is that they believe the manager is basically clueless and is wasting their time. If they are tight lipped, it is normally a sign of fear and low trust or obstinance.
The most positive expression for morale is a slight smile with bright open eyes and highly arched eyebrows. This expression indicates either interest or possible surprise.
Tone of voice
When people speak, their tone will give away how engaged they are in the conversation at hand. Apathy is easy to spot with a kind of roll-off of words in a low pitch that says “I don’t care.”
If the voice is stressed and shrill, that usually connotes fear of some type. Anger is easy to detect as the voice becomes choppy and the pitch and volume go up dramatically. People sometimes take on a sneer and mocking tone when they mimic other people.
Medium voice modulation with good diction usually means good engagement and attention.
When people make jokes at the expense of the other people, it often is thought of as just kidding around. The fact is, there is always some kind of truth underlying every dig. If people are mocking a manager for always showing up late to the meeting, it may cause a chuckle, but it often reveals that people believe the manager has no real respect for them.
Some groups are world class at making jokes at the expense of team members. I maintain this is a sign of poor rapport that will show up as a lack of good teamwork. This poor behavior can be stopped easily by just coming up with a rule that we will no longer make jokes at the expense of others.
At one company where I was teaching, the rule about not making jokes at the expense of others was the third behavioral rule on their list (I always have groups create such a list.) It was easy to extinguish the bad habit because we just allowed people to hold up three fingers whenever anybody violated the rule. The poor behavior, that had been going on for decades in that organization, was extinguished in less than one hour.
When people honestly engage in positive conversation and make constructive observations or ideas, it shows high morale. If they undermine the ideas of others or management, it shows a lack of respect that has its roots in low morale.
If the leader asks for a volunteer and you can hear a pin drop, that is a different reaction than if three hands go up immediately. People with high morale spontaneously volunteer to help out the organization. They respect their leader and truly want him or her to succeed because they know if the leader is successful then good things will happen for them.
In a culture of high morale, people have a tendency to praise each other and seek ways to help out other people. When morale is low, everybody is in it for themselves and will discredit the ideas or desires of other people to preserve their own status.
Leaders who know how to build a culture where individuals spontaneously praise each other for good deeds can foster higher morale by that emphasis alone, as long as the praise is sincere..
These are just seven ways you can identify the morale of a group, simply by observing what people are doing and saying. You can go to the trouble of a time-consuming and suspect survey, but you do not need to in order to measure morale.
Measuring turnover or absenteeism will be an accurate long-term reflection of morale, but by the time you get that data, the damage is done. You may have lost the best people. By observing people every day and making small corrective actions along the way, you can prevent low morale and build an environment of higher trust. In that kind of culture, productivity will go up dramatically.
Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations.