Effective leaders know that their employees drive the success of their business. Therefore, they place a premium on avoiding low employee morale. To do so, they focus on creating genuine relationships with employees and building a culture of trust, which can lead to greater productivity and highly engaged employees.
What is low morale, and what are the signs?
Low employee morale refers to how your employees feel about their job, their lack of satisfaction with their work and the company, their discontent with their manager, and a negative attitude about their future at a company.
Here are some causes of low employee morale:
- A persistently negative attitude.
- Increased tardiness.
- Frequent absenteeism.
- Decreased productivity.
- Lack of camaraderie and collaboration.
- A general lack of enthusiasm.
- Gossip and an overactive rumor mill.
- A high turnover rate.
Here are examples of nine behaviors that can contribute to low employee morale and tips on how to improve them.
1. Not accepting responsibility for mistakes.
A healthy workplace culture encourages checks and balances to ensure mistakes are promptly fixed and don't slip through the cracks. But mistakes happen; when they do, a good manager will not deny or minimize responsibility or deflect the blame to others. A blame culture promotes a toxic environment and lowers employee morale. It engenders fear for everyone on the team and can discourage people from admitting their mistakes.
When employees make mistakes, the blame shouldn't fall solely on them—it's on the whole team. That includes the others working on the project and the person in charge. A healthy culture is one that makes accountability everyone's business.
With the right managerial behaviors, there are many ways to avoid low employee morale and increase employee satisfaction.
Rather than admonish people when mistakes happen ask, "What can we learn from this?" Using mistakes as teaching opportunities empowers the team to learn and grow.
2. Calling employees out in public.
In the heat of the moment when something goes wrong, it can be tempting to give an employee an earful right then and there. But criticizing an employee in public where others can see or hear is one of the most humiliating experiences for anyone and can cause mental distress. Additionally, it's quite likely to embarrass employees who witness a colleague being criticized. All of this is sure to lead to low employee morale.
Some managers may want to criticize an employee in front of others as a teachable lesson for them as well. But infantilizing employees in this manner does more harm than good. Instead, pull them aside and have a respectful conversation in private. Mistakes are an opportunity to provide constructive feedback, and doing so privately reduces the likelihood that the employee will react defensively and instead encourages them to accept responsibility for their actions and learn from them.
3. Breaking promises and being dishonest.
Nothing erodes a manager's credibility faster than breaking promises. Do what you say you will do, and if you sometimes can't fulfill a promise, get back to people to let them know.
Employees don't trust dishonest leaders. Without trust, effective teamwork is impossible. A manager known to lie promotes a toxic workplace environment that fuels employee uncertainty and causes low employee morale. For example, when there is sensitive or confidential information you cannot share with employees immediately, share the parts that are safe to share and say: "This is the most I can share right now." Then employees know that you are not at liberty to divulge more, and they see that you are honestly keeping them as informed as possible.
Transparency and trust create a positive work environment, which makes people feel psychologically safe.
4. Setting unachievable goals.
Sometimes managers establish unachievable goals, unwittingly setting their employees up for failure. Unattainable goals typically expect higher standards than employees can meet because of a lack of resources, power, or expertise to make them a reality. When employees consistently come up short because the bar is set too high, their morale will plummet. They will think they're underperforming even though they probably aren't.
Setting unrealistic or unattainable goals is another surefire way to destroy employee morale. It's often a best practice to allow employees to participate in setting their goals and career milestones. Ideally, the organization's best interests should coincide with what is best for the employees' careers.
5. Threatening an employee's job security.
Some managers may play on employees' worries about losing their jobs in order to motivate or control their workforce. Making someone worry about their job only breeds fear, anxiety, and mistrust. It's easy to crush someone's spirit if they're made to feel that they're easily replaceable. Inciting fear of job loss is an ill-conceived practice guaranteed to lower employee morale and eventually cause employees to quit.
A study titled "Working Hard or Hardly Working, An Examination of Job Preservation Responses to Job Insecurity" showed that although threatening employee job security may result in short-term performance improvements, such action negatively impacts employee performance in the long run and is not in the company's best interest. For example, anxious and distracted employees focus less on doing valuable work and more on promoting themselves in the boss's eyes to preserve their jobs. Examples of other negative behaviors included concealing information or purposely undermining colleagues to appear better in comparison. (The study involved more than 600 US employees across various industries.)
6. Giving vague or incomplete instructions.
A busy manager may be in the habit of giving hurried, incomplete instructions, unintentionally setting an employee up for failure. Employees that are expected to deliver quality work on time while grappling with vague instructions that are difficult to decipher can experience unnecessary stress.
Additionally, If employees inevitably get it wrong, they risk being criticized for not understanding or for delivering subpar work, which contributes to low employee morale.
To avoid frustrating your people, clearly state your expectations when you assign work. At a minimum, no matter how busy you are, make it safe for employees to ask as many clarifying questions as they need.
To pre-empt low employee morale, consider giving people more latitude in how they do their job and accomplish tasks. This enhanced responsibility will help them develop their critical thinking skills and encourage leadership within the team.
There are few ways to demoralize workers faster than micromanaging their every move. Nobody wants someone looking over their shoulder, combing through everything they do, and consistently second-guessing their work.
Micromanaging employees conveys a lack of confidence in their skills. Directing and controlling every move or task an employee performs creates a sense of insecurity and discouragement, which can lead to burnout, low employee morale, and decreased productivity. Eventually, it may even cause employees to quit.
As a manager, you can periodically check in on your staff to see how they're doing, but not as a constant occurrence that would demoralize them. To keep an eye on things, consider some of these alternatives to micromanaging:
- Reframing your approach to staff as assistance rather than surveillance.
- Wisely timing your interference. Waiting before you jump in gives employees a chance to work on a project and conclude that they might need your help.
- Trusting your employees to do the job you hired them for and providing regular positive feedback to increase their confidence.
8. Never offering praise or positive feedback.
Positive feedback makes everyone feel good and fosters a healthy corporate culture, while a persistent lack of appreciation contributes to low employee morale and takes a toll on employees spirits.
That's not to say that a manager needs to praise employees constantly. Since every employee has different needs, there is no "magic number" for how often recognition should be given. Managers should instead focus on giving employees a consistent and reliable sense of appreciation to satisfy their fundamental human need to feel important and validated.
9. Holding workers back if they're doing well.
A guaranteed recipe for employee unhappiness and low employee morale is consistently ignoring those who go the extra mile to give you their discretionary effort. Examples of discretionary efforts include taking on a job no one wants, putting in the extra time to meet a deadline, or going above and beyond to exceed a customer's expectations. These employees are keen about their work and fully committed to helping the team improve.
To recognize and reward employees who take initiative, here are some low-cost or no-cost recognition ideas:
- Increased responsibility.
- A better title.
- A promotion.
- Professional development.
- Time off work.
- Work-from-home days or flexible work arrangements.
- Offsetting the cost of commuting to work daily.
- A handwritten thank-you note.
- Company merchandise or tickets to events.
- Expressing gratitude publicly.
- More recognition in meetings and giving credit where credit is due.
With the right managerial behaviors, there are many ways to avoid low employee morale and increase employee satisfaction. Staying focused on these common causes and taking these suggested steps to avoid them can help promote a culture of employee satisfaction, which can lead to higher productivity and a greater client experiences.
A version of this article was originally published on September 4, 2017.
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