How to fix low employee morale before it becomes a problem

If you’ve ever worked with people who were happy and collaborative, you know what good morale feels like. Work is a little easier for everyone when the vibes are good and employee engagement is high. Communication happens fast, work quality soars, objectives are clear, and retention stays at a healthy level.

Signs of low morale, on the other hand, can be a bit more complicated. It can feel disjointed and clunky, usually involving far too many meetings and little leader visibility. Team members are unfamiliar with each other and may not get along. There may even be an air of hostility between management and staff.

Left untreated, low employee morale can sour working relationships to the point of stalling operations, even leading to a strike. If this sounds like your workplace, it’s important to address its root causes quickly and boost employee morale before it spirals out of control. If not, you need to know the signs so you can head them off if things ever take a wrong turn. Let’s talk about how.

Establish a vision

All corporations suffer from a rift between management and employees. It’s a fact of life, and while there are ways to improve that dynamic, it’s hard to get rid of entirely. The best salve leaders have is to help their team members find confidence in the company vision and where they fit within it.

This isn’t easy to do, especially with all the empty, played-out motivational speeches we’ve heard too many times. Here are some steps for ditching those cliché huddles in favor of something more constructive:

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  • Visualize an end result. No matter the product, it’s important for all team members to not only understand not just what a final version looks like, but why it’s supposed to look that way—specifically, why the company wants it that way. Two car rental companies may offer the same product, but there’s a marked difference between the way brands like Hertz and Avis differentiate themselves.

  • Map out the steps. West coast burger chain In-N-Out has a policy of only promoting from within. This means all managers start their careers out serving customers before they’re able to give orders later on, and while the model isn’t suitable for all companies, the lesson is clear: leaders can’t lead without a detailed understanding of what staff members are supposed to do. Without this understanding, staff morale will fall as people lose confidence in their abilities.

  • Make it real. Doing good work is a lot easier if you know it will lead to a guaranteed result. Your competitors are living proof of what a finished product can look like, and combined with your own vision of how to do it better, there’s no limit to what your teams are capable of. Offer proof to increase your team’s morale and help them feel better about the work they need to do.

Sharing inspiration isn’t a bad idea either. If you stumble across some words of wisdom, feel free to share them, but remember that the priority should be to help team members find and generate inspiration of their own.

Assess the work-life balance

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One phrase going around (made famous by Kim Kardashian) is that “nobody wants to work anymore.” It’s a popular oversimplification, but it’s mostly incorrect. Here’s the truth: nobody wants meaningless work.

If your life is the same whether or not you work on something, what’s the point in doing it? This is why it’s so important for businesses to take inventory of the work-life balance aspect of the employee experience.

We get it—work is a fact of life. If we want to get ahead (or even just pay rent), we have to put in the hours necessary to get paid. But if working extra doesn’t result in extra pay, more time at home, or greater overall well-being, there’s simply no justifying it.

Here are some questions to ask when gauging the causes of low employee morale:

  • Do people regularly stay late to get things done?

  • Do people take regular vacations?

  • Is there a functional sick/mental health day policy in place?

  • Are workers paid competitively for their field?

  • Does your company offer inflation raises as well as regular pay raises?

  • Do you have enough staff to manage customer workloads?

Work-life balance isn’t just about being able to go home at the end of a shift; it’s about the fair trade of labor for wages. When wages don’t match the amount of effort required to do a job well, employees won’t feel good about putting in that effort.

Work normal, play normal

In the good old days of American corporatism, there was a belief that hard work resulted in tenure with the company. Fair pay was a given, promotions were expected, and pensions were the incentive for years of loyalty with one employer.

For better or worse (worse), those days are over. Remote teams do remote work, and they no longer feel that their employers value loyalty. Coupled with the near-total disappearance of pensions, job hopping is rapidly becoming the norm.

Companies that prioritize their bottom line with cut-rate wages and minimal benefits may be able to corral a few desperate souls to do the job, but chances are high that the resulting morale issues will lead to high employee turnover. Yes, workplaces like this can function for many years. There are plenty out there (like Amazon and Walmart) that are known for, let’s just say, less-than-ideal working conditions, but they tend to only be remembered in nightmares.

Don’t keep busy with busywork

There are times when teams need to give 110% to get a project across the finish line, but unless this is one of those times, find space to give people a break.

Make no mistake: it’s tough to be a good manager. Finding work for people to do is a job in itself, which is supposedly why managers are paid better. They have foresight and an ability to come in clutch when things get hairy.

“Find something to do” isn’t a management style, however, and while the cliché has become ingrained in American culture, it is a lazy lack of communication that contributes to a negative work environment. Not only that, but it’s a liability that could have consequences. If a manager tells an employee with nothing to do to just do whatever they can imagine, they could be on the hook should that employee royally screw something up.

Good management—not micromanagement—is a staple of high employee morale. When managers have tasks for their teams, employees think less about what they like and don’t like about their job. Their time is spent getting better at the work they do, and they feel a sense of accomplishment as their skills improve over time.

Managers must prioritize finding useful, constructive work for their team members.

Pizza parties are okay!

It’s no secret that when companies can’t (or won’t) establish a good work-life balance for their employees, empty celebrations like pizza parties are called in to make up the difference. But before we go and criticize this staple of American company culture, let’s get something clear: pizza parties are great when used correctly.

Socializing with coworkers is fun, and if a party is the only team-building activity you have available, it’s good enough. However, if most of the other aspects of a workplace are negative, then such an activity won’t make the different.

Morale is always higher when people enjoy the time they spend at work, regardless of whether or not work gets done in the meantime. Getting people together is good for employee wellness and satisfaction—benefits that will outlast the fun of the afternoon.

When teams reach their goals, it’s important—maybe even mandatory—to celebrate. Without recognition, employees may develop a lack of trust and start to feel worse about their jobs.

There are other ways to recognize employees as well, such as:

  • Awards or callouts during standup meetings

  • Bonuses and pay raises

  • Company swag and/or gift cards

Most important is that the company recognize employees for a job well done. Think about it: you pay someone to do a job and they actually do it to your expectations. It’s magic, and it can’t be taken for granted. Employees are people who have goals of their own; goals that go beyond those of their employer.

Taking time to recognize when things go well is a great way to boost low employee morale and drive employee satisfaction.

Ask for input

If asking for employee feedback scares you a little bit, you’re not alone. Asking employees how they feel about their jobs is a fraught endeavor, as it can hurt to hear team members nitpick the company.

Here’s the thing, though: employees see things from their point of view, which is often at odds with the ruling powers of the company. When employees have negative feedback, employers need to challenge the urge to feel defensive about it, as well as continue providing such opportunities in the future.

Here are some tips for accepting criticism:

  • Repeat all feedback out loud. Whether that goes back to the other person or into the air of a room you’re in, repeating feedback back out loud forces interpretation. The goal here is to simply try to understand.

  • Take two big breaths. Yeah, the standard is one, but two is better because it makes you focus on breathing and counting.

  • Think before you speak. Keep emotions business-friendly. It’s normal to feel upset when hearing criticism, especially when it feels unfair (most criticism feels unfair). Keep it together.

Accepting feedback gets easier the more you do it, and it’s likely that many of the people reading this have great capacity for handling criticism. Good job pals.

If there’s a danger in asking for input, it’s in the Checkov’s gun of following up. Asking for ideas on making work better is meaningless unless feedback is implemented quickly enough to retain its connection to resulting changes. Unless there’s an actual intention to utilize feedback, it’s better not to ask for it.

Shake up the scenery

Sometimes all you need is a different perspective. Is it a permanent solution to chronic organizational problems? Definitely not, but seeing things from a new point of view can change the pace just enough to break up the occasional slump.

If morale at work is low, here are a few ideas for changing things up:

  • Change the seating chart

  • Rotate in some new drink and snack options

  • Add some plants

  • Introduce furniture for a lounge space

  • Start a new weekly office tradition

These are simple, low-cost options that may or may not disrupt poor morale. You can also explore higher cost changes for impact, such as changes to lighting, chairs, and desks.

Systemic problems at work probably won’t be solved by some minor interior decorating adjustments, but the simple change in pace might provide just the boost your teams need to get their minds off any patterns that contribute to low morale.

Look at leadership and staff relationships

The teams that work best are those where leaders and staff get along, but breakdowns here don’t have to lead to low morale. Some employees prefer to work on their own and never bother to build a friendly relationship with the people in charge. They even thrive in such dynamics. This is okay!

People don’t have to be friends to work together. However, there are toxic management styles that will cause damage beyond weak relations and lead to poor overall morale.

As you’ve probably experienced, leaders who have little interest in listening to others’ ideas are insufferable. These people often shut down discussions as soon as they’re not the decision maker or the center of attention, and it can be deeply frustrating to try and get anything done when they’re involved in a project. Real teamwork has to include leaders truly listening to their teams.

It’s possible to take this too far, though. Some leaders turn simple choices into committee decisions, making every future change a belabored and exhausting process. These bottlenecks make it harder for self-starters to gain any real momentum, which is a serious morale drain.

Sometimes, the biggest problem for leaders is learning to let go and trusting employees to do it right. Strained relationships between leaders and staff often originate here—management’s unwillingness to have the last word on every decision to get projects across the finish line.

Always express confidence

Low morale can contribute to all kinds of workplace problems, such as burnout, absenteeism, and high turnover. When employers see numbers trending in the wrong direction, it’s important to take a look and see how confident teams feel about their ability to perform at work.

Leaders have a responsibility to inspire confidence across the company. Regular check-ins are a great way to reassure team members that they are valued and important. Show gratitude and emphasize your total belief in their ability to achieve, and you can guarantee an improvement in employee morale.