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8 Ways Managers Can Improve Morale - Part Two

By David Lee
Reprinted from The Employment Times · April 26, 2004
This two part article is part of a multi-article series on improving morale. The first article in the series, “Are You Really Serious About Improving Morale?” focused on why saying “We need to improve morale. What program would you recommend that doesn’t cost much (or anything)?” reveals a fundamental flaw in one’s understanding of morale, and a questionable level of sincerity about addressing this critical issue. It then identified key principles of effective morale-building initiatives.
In Part One of this article, we identified four actions managers can immediately take to improve morale. Those were:
  1. Focus On What You Can Control, Not On What You Can’t
2. Do “The Big Three”: Notice what employees do right, Listen, and Show Appreciation
3. Engage Your Staff In Ongoing Conversations About Improving Morale
4. Ask For Feedback About Your Management Style, Especially After Difficult Interactions
n Part Two of this article, we will be discussing four more ways managers can improve morale. These recommendations will be of the self-reflection and ongoing professional development genre. They are designed to help you “sharpen your saw”. To use Stephen Covey’s analogy of the exhausted woodcutter who would be wise to stop and sharpen his saw, if you take the time to do these recommendations, it will be time well spent.

By increasing your awareness of how you impact your staff’s morale, and taking the time to learn more about the factors that impact morale, you will dramatically improve your effectiveness. You will dramatically increase your ability to not only cultivate high morale, but also high productivity and high employee engagement. So, here are your next recommendations.

Ask yourself: “Am I Inspired?”

If you’re not, how can you expect your staff to be? If you don’t feel inspired, if you don’t feel fired up about coming to work, do some soul searching about why. Are you simply tired from overwork and therefore “running on empty?” If so, it’s hard to get excited about anything. Do you no longer feel connected to your organization’s mission or do you even feel at odds with it? Does your job or profession no longer enliven you? Or… have you simply been running on autopilot and need to reconnect with what you love about your work and the value you and your organization provide? Whatever the source, if you’re not inspired, you need to rekindle your passion if you want your people to be inspired and motivated.

Ask Yourself: “Am I Inspiring?”

If you find it hard to answer that question, think about what emotions you trigger in others. You see you are - just like all supervisors and managers - like Pavlov’s bell. Remember Dr. Pavlov’s famous experiments where he would ring a bell while presenting food to dogs? After awhile, just the sound of the bell would cause the dogs to salivate. They had unconsciously associated the sound of the bell with food, so that he didn’t even have to show them food for them to salivate. The sound of the bell alone would do it.

You are like Pavlov’s bell to your workers. Not that they salivate when they see you (or at least I hope not), but because you trigger feelings in them whenever they see you or hear your voice on the phone. The feelings you trigger depend on the dominant emotional themes of your interactions. If the majority of a manager’s interactions with staff are focused on correcting, criticizing, bringing bad news, etc; then they will trigger negative emotions in their workers just by showing up. Haven’t you had a boss like that? The moment you saw them or heard their voice on the phone, you felt defensive, angry, and maybe even resentful.

Conversely, managers who frequently engage their workers in positive interactions automatically trigger a different emotional response in their workers. Even though being a manager requires difficult conversations and interactions, these managers make sure they offset these with positive interactions. They consciously recognize excellent work and effort, show appreciation, and show interest in their people’s professional development. Because of this, they trigger empowering emotions in their people. These emotions then fuel high productivity and fierce loyalty. Thus, to improve morale, look at the dominant emotional themes of your interactions and ask yourself whether or not they lead to inspired, engaged workers.

Learn Which Factors And Practices Make The Biggest Difference In Employee Morale And Productivity, And Commit To Executing These

All competent professionals invest time and effort in learning how to increase their efficacy. Whether a doctor, an accountant, or an auto mechanic, they owe it to their patients, clients, or customers to know the latest, most effective approaches to their profession. They need to know what works. Likewise, you owe it to your employer and your staff to know what works when it comes to morale and productivity.
1. Attend management development seminars that include both overarching guiding principles and research-based practices that have been shown to bring out the best in workers. If your employer doesn’t pay for them, invest in yourself.
2. Read the Gallup Organization’s research on the 12 factors that make the biggest difference in employee loyalty, performance, and engagement. You can find this information on the web including a short article on my site[1] or in their landmark book First Break all the Rules.
3. Read Watson Wyatt Worldwide’s research published in WorkUSA 2002. They show how powerfully such factors as trust in management, employee engagement, and managing change well impact organizational profitability. In fact, one of these factors was shown to make a 700% difference in profitability! You can find that report on Watson Wyatt Worldwide’s website. Take this information and operationalize it, work together with your staff to identify what your management team can do to make these factors happen. (If you would like a worksheet I’ve created for managers on this, email me).
4. Read magazines like Fast Company, Fortune, and Inc. (or visit their article archives online) as well as industry publications that highlight best practices.
5. Draw from your own experiences and those of your colleagues about what practices bring out the best in people, and which ones bring out the worst. A simple exercise I do with managers is to have them reflect on great and not-so-great bosses they’ve had, and then list the Do’s and Don’ts gleaned from these experiences. Doing that helps them remember the tremendous impact doing the simple fundamentals can have. It reminds them how simple practices like showing appreciation, listening to employees’ ideas, and showing respect pay huge dividends. By taking the time to reflect on and discuss these factors, you increase the odds that you will remember to do the things that make a huge positive impact, and refrain from those that diminish morale.

Learn More About Human Nature And How To Work With It, Rather Than Against It

Legendary quality guru Dr. Edwards Deming once sent Dr. Peter Senge, author of the business classic The Fifth Discipline, a letter containing the following line: “Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people.” In discussing Dr. Deming’s observation at a conference of quality professionals, Senge noted: “What Dr. Deming was getting at was that our prevailing system of management is fundamentally inconsistent with human nature.”

When managed in ways that are inconsistent with human nature, people operate at a fraction of their true capacity. Furthermore, when people are managed in ways that are inconsistent with human nature, they bring a much poorer version of themselves to work. They are not nearly as engaged, loyal, creative, flexible, or even mature as they are when they are working in an environment that is in sync with human nature.

To illustrate the importance of a manager understanding human nature, and the consequences of not doing this, let’s use an agricultural analogy. Imagine someone going into large scale commercial farming without learning the growing condition requirements of each vegetable they hope to raise. Imagine this person, responsible for a multi-million dollar operation, deciding that he is too busy to learn about the growing condition requirements of the various vegetables he will grow. Instead, he decides that he is just going to “fly by the seat of his pants” and “wing it.” How will the quality and quantity of his produce compare to that of competitors who understand the nature of each vegetable they grow and satisfy those conditions?

Granted, this is a rather absurd analogy. No intelligent, prudent businessperson would stake their investment and livelihood on such a haphazard, uninformed, undisciplined approach. Yet, if you are a manager and you haven’t invested time and effort in learning more about human nature and how to manage in ways that are in sync with human nature, you’re “winging it.” If you’re winging it, you – and your employer - are only getting a fraction of your workers’ true potential.
Here are a five actions you can take to learn more about human nature:
1. Attend seminars or evening classes on psychology, human behavior, and organizational psychology.
2. Learn about personality styles. Whether you use the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), DISC, True Colors, or other models, this information can make a huge difference in your ability to bring out the best in people – especially those who are very different from you.
3. Read a few of the many excellent books about human nature. I’ve found over the years that each discipline, each author, provides a piece of the puzzle. A few of my favorites are Neanderthals at Work, The Evolution of Consciousness, New World New Mind, and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.
4. Ask colleagues about books on human behavior or management they’ve found helpful and check them out.
5. In the meantime, practice managing in ways that are consistent with these following aspects of human nature:
Humans have an innate need for control and autonomy – The more control and autonomy people have, the more satisfied, motivated, and mature they will be. Furthermore, research by Blessing/White showed that autonomy was the number one factor influencing discretionary effort. Therefore, work with your employees to find ways of giving them more positive control and autonomy in their jobs. You’ll obviously want to adjust this according to their skill level, maturity, etc.
Humans crave meaning and purpose – When people believe they’re part of an organization with a worthy mission, and believe they contribute to the mission, they’re far more likely to be passionate and committed. Therefore, make sure you talk with your employees about your organization’s mission, the good things your organization does, how they contribute to it’s success, and how they can become even more of a player.
Humans are energized by the opportunity to problem-solve and learn - People are like cats. We’re curious by nature, but if we don’t have a chance to engage that curiosity, we become bored and lethargic. When we do have the opportunity, our energy and activity level soars. Therefore, work with your employees to find out ways they can play a more active role in figuring out problems, making process improvements, and suggesting innovations. Work with them to find ways of embedding learning into their regular work experience. The more you do this, the more animated and engaged they will be.


Regardless of what level you are in the organizational hierarchy, you have a huge influence on the morale of your staff. No matter what your employees’ current level of morale, you can improve it, if you:
  1. Focus On What You Can Control, Not On What You Can’t
2. Do “The Big Three”: Notice what employees do right, Listen, and Show Appreciation
3. Engage Your Staff In Ongoing Conversations About Improving Morale
4. Ask For Feedback About Your Management Style, Especially After Difficult Interactions
5. Ask yourself: “Am I Inspired?”
6. Ask Yourself: “Am I Inspiring?”
7. Learn Which Factors And Practices Make The Biggest Difference In Employee Morale And Productivity, And Commit To Executing These
8. Learn More About Human Nature And How To Work With It, Rather Than Against It

Coming Up Next

The next article in this series will focus on what CEOs, presidents, and business owners can do to improve morale. Although each of the suggestions in this article apply to an organization’s senior most executive, there are other actions that only the CEO, president, or business owner can – and must – do to improve employee morale, productivity, and engagement. In next article, we will explore those things. In the final article, we will examine the HR manager’s role.
[1] You can find this list in the article “Your Managers: Secret Weapon or Achilles Heal?”

About the Author: David Lee is an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance. He is the author of Managing Employee Stress and Safety, as well as dozens of articles on employee and organizational performance that have been published in trade journals and books in North America, Asia, Europe, and Australia. For information on his programs and service, click here.

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