When was the last time you walked into an organization and could feel the energy and passion of the people there? Like you were in a work environment where people were doing their best work, and doing it collaboratively, authentically, and with a crystal clear focus?
We often think of “high employee morale” as the product of things like catered lunches, massage chairs, and happy hours. Those things are important, but I like to think of employee morale as a sentiment that exists in a company culture, especially one that projects an employee experience where people can do their best work.
Keeping employee and team morale high can be easy when the organization is having success, but what about when it isn’t? This article looks at the factors that drive employee morale, specifically preserving workplace morale in hard times.
Drivers of Employee Morale
Depending on which theory of motivation you subscribe to, you could make an argument for a variety of initiatives that result in strong employee motivation. Many people are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, for example, which suggests that we all have foundational, physiological needs that must be met first if we ever aspire to meet higher-order psychological needs such as self-actualization.
That said, this is only one of an array of motivational theories that have appeared over several decades of psychological research.
Another prominent motivational theory is the self-determination theory (2000), which suggests that all humans have three main needs: the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. This theory provides a good lens for exploring employee morale.
Using the Self-Determination Theory to Boost Employee Morale
For employees to be put in a position to do their best work, the three needs described in the self-determination theory must carry equal importance.
Autonomy - “I Take Ownership of My Work”
The need for autonomy is fulfilled as individuals feel they are more intrinsically motivated toward a goal versus extrinsically motivated.
Put simply, when people feel they are the source of their decisions and actions, and that these decisions and actions are aligned with their goals, they are likely to feel that their need for autonomy is being fulfilled.
For example, what decisions could you empower your employees to make themselves, thereby helping to fulfill their need for autonomy?
Alternatively, the more a person feels that they need to complete certain actions to comply with external requests or demands (i.e., requests or demands important to others), the less likely their autonomy needs are fulfilled. When we take a person’s voice, decision-making power, and control over their workflow away, we cripple their job satisfaction and diminish any personal drive to do hard work that they may take ownership of.
The recent "return to office" debate and the backlash that mandated in-office policies created is a good example of the inflammatory results we get when we take autonomy away from workers. Some people are not fundamentally opposed to returning to the office, but they do want to be included in the decision and/or feel like they have the right to make the decision themselves.
Competence - “I Can Do This Job”
The need for competence is fulfilled as individuals are able to experience a sense of proficiency or mastery of a skill or task. The feeling of competence is inevitably tied to employee feedback. Acknowledgment of a person’s hard work and abilities (and other forms of employee recognition) provides a morale boost.
It is also dependent on matching people with tasks that allow them to use their best skills. How can you put your employees in a position to apply their strengths on the job, as well as grow and learn in areas of interest? Doing so can support the fulfillment of their competence needs.
People want to feel good at what they’re doing. When workers struggle to feel that they are performing proficiently and/or mastering a skill, it can be demotivating and lead to low employee morale. People need the opportunity to feel like they are doing a good job at least in some regard, even if not across the board.
Relatedness - “I’m Part of Something I Like”
Not to be overlooked, the need for relatedness speaks to our human desire to feel connected to one another. That can take different forms for different people, but Deci and Ryan’s research is clear that broadly, human beings have a need to feel connected and/or part of a community, whatever form that takes.
A supportive workplace culture where people feel included is critical to sustained positive employee morale.
How connected are employees? Do you offer opportunities for people to get to know each other and feel like they belong as part of the work community? Not everyone is an extrovert, so I’m not suggesting you legislate this with a happy hour, potluck, or virtual trivia each week; but, if you start by truly caring about each employee as an individual and creating a culture that encourages others to do the same, there’s a good chance people will begin to feel more connected to one another.
Other Key Components
As mentioned in the very beginning of this article, employee morale can be thought of as evident when people are doing their best work, and doing it collaboratively, authentically, and with a crystal clear focus.
Self-determination theory gives us a foundation for how we can move toward doing our best work. What about doing it collaboratively and with a crystal clear focus?
One of the most effective tools I’ve seen for supporting a collaborative workforce is The Collaborative Way. Starting at the center with each organization’s “Up To Focus”, collaborative organizations are achieved through five key practices:
- Being for each other
- Listening generously
- Speaking straight
- Honoring commitments
- Acknowledgment and appreciation
These efforts are supported by two guiding principles: inclusion and alignment.
When organizations commit to a daily practice of creating and maintaining a collaborative workplace, great things can happen. These things are not at the expense of business results, but rather in alignment with them, if not accelerating them.
This approach to collaboration may be invoking associations with the concept of psychological safety in the workplace. This term has become more prominent in the last several years as it relates to people being put in a position to bring their best effort to work.
A Clear Focus
An organization’s focus (or lack thereof) is evident in the way they speak, how often they communicate, and the consistency of those communications.
To evaluate how clear your focus is with your employees, consider the following questions:
- Could all of your employees indicate (with 100% accuracy) what big, hairy, audacious goal your organization is working toward if asked? For example, helping people control their future, improving the earth for future generations, making the world’s best _____, or something else?
- How often do day-to-day actions appear to support this goal? This applies not just within your customer- or client-facing teams, but also throughout your support teams as well.
- Do internal–and possibly external–communications reiterate the focus/goal and supporting actions at every turn?
- Are a handful of key metrics highlighted on a frequent basis so people know the progress being made toward the goal or focus?
- Do all individuals across your organization know how they personally have a role in supporting the goal? Can they take personal satisfaction in the organization’s success, knowing their contribution to it?
This is just a start at being clear in your organization’s purpose and applying it across every nook and cranny of your organization.
Sometimes the answers to the above questions take more than pulling together a couple of key individuals across your firm; they may also take market research, deep conversations, company-wide employee surveys, and even some individual soul-searching as well.
It’s hard to imagine an organization with a clear focus, collaborative approach, community feel, autonomy support, and opportunities for mastery achieving anything other than great things.
What About Employee Morale in Hard Times?
You may be thinking to yourself that all of this is well and good when the market is favorable, talent is plentiful, and things are going well; but what about when they’re not?
Like any common sports analogy will tell you: hard times are when it’s ever more important to double down on fundamentals. That’s a time to pull together, think and act in a “we’re all in this together” way, and rely on the team you’ve built to weather whatever storm is happening at the moment.
What are the fundamentals of employee morale? Let’s recap:
- A clear focus, reiterated often, consistently, and in every possible opportunity
- A collaborative environment of the highest caliber
- Opportunities for employees to feel a sense of control over their day-to-day decision-making
- An environment that draws upon employee strengths and gives them a sense that they are developing and working toward mastery of a craft or skill
- An individualized, community feel and space where people feel connected to one another but still true to their authentic selves
These are not easy things to achieve, and it’s easy to get pulled back into the complacency of wherever you’re at now.
Further, working on the fundamentals of employee engagement and morale (listed above) is rarely glamorous. It can feel arduous, stagnating, and unfulfilling at times. But aside from a moonshot stroke of luck, a laser focus on these fundamentals is the more likely factor that will drive organizations to success.
The Downstream Benefits of High Employee Morale
We’ve discussed the component of cultivating high employee morale. Now, let’s look at the motivation to prioritize it as an organizational concern.
High employee morale is a significant contributor to the overall success, profitability, and well-being of an organization due to the downstream benefits it creates.
When employees are happy and motivated, they tend to be more productive. They are more likely to put in their best effort and go the extra mile to achieve their goals and contribute to the organization's success.
As mentioned above, the need for morale can be most pressing when the organization or the economy suffers. It is in these times that employee morale can either further diminish output, or ensure team members buckle down and overcome hardship.
When people enjoy their work and feel supported by their organization, they are more likely to experience less workplace stress and burnout. A high morale workplace without resentment among coworkers indicates everyone pulls their weight. This means when an individual needs to step away from their responsibilities, they feel safe to do so and trust their colleagues will temporarily pick up the slack.
In this way, high employee morale can help employees maintain a healthy work-life balance - a critical component of sustained mental health.
Improved Employee Engagement
High morale leads to higher levels of employee engagement. Engaged employees, who do and care more than the required minimum, are more committed to their work and the organization's mission, which can lead to better job performance.
Because this also contributes to employee experience and employee satisfaction across your organization, a significant downstream benefit is retention.
Improved Recruitment Efforts
In a labor market where candidates have the means to research your company’s culture, morale, and values before accepting an offer, it is imperative to create a work environment that top talent will want to partake in.
It is becoming more common for job seekers to ask about the efforts a prospective employer makes to foster employee well-being and morale through structured recognition programs, team-building activities, professional development opportunities, and incentives. It is also accepted that job seekers will research a company’s employee retention and experience before even applying for a position there.
Reduced Employee Turnover
Employees with high morale are less likely to leave the organization because they are less likely to actively seek new job opportunities, reducing the risk of losing valuable talent.
High turnover rates can be costly in terms of recruitment, training, and lost productivity, so retaining talented employees can lead to significant cost savings.
Enhanced Creativity and Innovation
Happy employees are more likely to think creatively and come up with innovative solutions to challenges. They feel comfortable sharing their ideas and contributing to the organization's growth.
In contrast to this, in an organization with poor workplace morale, employees may feel defeated before they even propose an innovation — an attitude of “Why bother?” This demoralized feeling can be avoided by cultivating a workplace culture where innovation is celebrated with authentic consideration, not squashed or picked apart with counter-arguments.
When we show employees that their ideas are valid and considered, it reiterates their value and feeling of competence in their work.
Better Teamwork and Collaboration
When employees are in good spirits and believe that they are making valuable contributions, they are more likely to work well with their colleagues. High-morale workplaces where people are empowered to do their best work foster a positive work environment where teamwork and collaboration thrive.
A workplace culture where individuals feel their contribution is important also discourages absenteeism. In a workplace with high morale, no one wants to let down the team.
Improved Customer Satisfaction
Employees with high morale are more likely to provide excellent customer service. Satisfied employees tend to be more patient, helpful, and positive when interacting with customers throughout their workday, which can lead to higher customer satisfaction and loyalty.
Ultimately, high employee morale can have a direct impact on an organization's bottom line. Productive and engaged employees contribute to increased revenue and profitability.
Final Thoughts on Cultivating High Employee Morale
High employee morale is a valuable asset for any organization. Through autonomy, competence, relatedness, collaboration, and a clear focus, any organization can nurture a workforce with healthy morale.
These fundamentals are present in every step of the employee lifecycle, from onboarding a new employee to parting with them on their last day. It also applies to remote work, hybrid models, and in-person teams equally - perhaps especially for remote employees who have few physical touchpoints on which to build ongoing morale.