Tending Morale

min read

To reap the benefits of good morale, leadership must constantly tend to and nurture it in the workplace. This blog explores how to improve workplace morale.

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Credit: rawpixel.com / Shutterstock © 2018

We hear a lot of talk about the importance of high morale in the workplace, but have we stopped to reflect on what morale really is and how it affects organizational culture, particularly if morale is low? Low morale manifests itself in our organizations in many ways, including lowered productivity, increased sick leave, widespread staff griping and dissatisfaction, frequent work errors, decreased cooperation within and among teams, and apathy — and the list goes on. Morale is a leadership responsibility that must be constantly tended and nurtured to keep high.

What Is Morale?

Merriam-Webster.com defines morale as

the mental and emotional condition (as of enthusiasm, confidence, or loyalty) of an individual or group with regard to the function or tasks at hand | a sense of common purpose with respect to a group | the level of individual psychological well-being based on such factors as a sense of purpose and confidence in the future

Morale is a state of mind that involves feelings and emotions. Created uniquely within each employee and manifest collectively, it is often considered an elusive quality, but at its core it is knowable and demonstrable. It involves the attitude and perception toward the job, work environment, team members, managers, executives, and the organization as a whole. Positive employee morale is usually exhibited by confidence, discipline, and a willingness to perform at a high level — often beyond expectations by going the proverbial extra mile to get the job done. There is no single factor that explains high or low morale, but rather a combination of related items.

The High Cost of Low Morale

In every organization, people are the most important resource. Staff are the ultimate force that drives productivity and creativity, and their sense of morale and motivation will impact overall organizational success. Building and maintaining a good work culture begins with having positive beliefs about your staff. The assumptions you have about your staff affect your behavior as their leader, and your behavior drives them either positively or negatively. It follows that if you assume your staff cares about the organization's success and works hard in the best interests of the organization and its mission, their actions will reflect this belief — and vice versa. In short, managers and leaders strongly influence staff morale: it typically works top down rather than bottom up.

A costly indicator of low morale is high turnover. The negative impact of turnover is disruptive because of its tremendous impact on productivity. More importantly, when staff leave, they take with them the knowledge, skills, and ability that contribute to the goals and performance of the organization.

Absenteeism is another sign of low morale. When staff feel dissatisfied with some aspect of their job, disinterested in their work, or discontented with management, the level of absenteeism increases. Other staff have to take on more to compensate and, as a consequence, productivity and organizational performance tend to suffer.

To ensure commitment and good morale, managers and leaders must be transparent in communicating their vision and conveying optimism about the future, especially during times of change and uncertainty. This transparency heightens levels of motivation and helps staff recognize the importance and value of their work while encouraging a goal-oriented, ambitious, and consistent working style. Those organizations that remain vigilant to the signs of low morale and focus on improving it can avoid its inevitable negative impact. A climate where staff are valued and accepted is advantageous for both employees and the organization.

The Causes of Low Morale

There can be a number of reasons for low morale in an organization. Here are several of the big ones:

  • Poor leadership — Leadership tops the list because it is often the root problem. Low morale in the workplace means a leader or manager has not addressed an underlying issue, such as a troublesome management style or not valuing the people aspect of the leadership equation. Be aware that poor leadership destroys employee trust. Once trust has eroded, it is very difficult to regain it. Trust is the foundation of a successful organization and a critical component of good staff morale.
  • Lack of clear expectations — Employees want to know what is expected of them. They may become anxious that they are not meeting expectations, which can negatively impact their performance reviews. As a manager, you must take the time to set clear expectations of your staff, listen to them, and understand and adapt to their personal communication styles in order to accomplish work productively.
  • Dissatisfaction with a current position — Most employees have hopes of advancing in their careers and possibly moving up in the organization. They may want more money or more challenging work. The staff member may even like the current position, but feel underutilized, leading to lowered morale.
  • Other staff — When management fails to deal with an underperforming employee, it can quickly spread negativity among the entire staff and unduly burden some team members.

Dealing with Low Morale

To deal with morale issues, you must first understand the reason and take steps to mitigate the damage. The longer you let it linger and fester, the more difficult it will be to recover morale. There are no immediate fixes. Throwing a pizza party may raise morale for a day or two, but it does not address the core issues — and it's not sustainable. No type of "feel good" activity will solve underlying problems.

When morale is low, staff may not express it directly and quietly hope management will solve the problem. But all too often, managers and leaders fail not only to connect with their employees but also to give them the affirmation they need to thrive. All leaders and managers should reflect on this point.

Remember: morale is an emotional issue. Staff need to feel their work is appreciated and that they are valued members of the team. Managers and leaders who ignore this basic need for recognition do so at great peril.

Tips for Improving Morale

Staff also need to feel a connection between themselves and management: that they share a common purpose and goals. They need assurance that management understands who they are and they do — and will be there to help them when needed. Below are suggestions for ways to strengthen the bond with your staff.

  • Spend time with your staff — One way to connect with your staff is to spend time with them. Take some time to sit with them at their desk or in their unit (in other words, on their turf as opposed to yours). Or maybe just stop by to see how they are doing. However, you must be sincere in your efforts or they will backfire and be perceived as phony or even condescending. Occasionally eating lunch or taking breaks with your staff offers a great opportunity to meet on equal footing and engage in conversation that's not related to work. Developing an interest people beyond their job descriptions builds esprit de corps and loyalty. Taking time to genuinely interact with your staff goes a long way toward maintaining the connection you need to keep morale high.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate — Effective managers communicate widely and promote their messages in person and at staff meetings. By providing an open forum and allowing one-on-one time, staff can express concerns and feelings and give input on projects and processes. Open, honest, and consistent communication creates collaborative and supportive work environments.
  • Challenge your staff — The drudgery of doing the same thing, day after day, year after year can lead to low morale over time. Consider how you can add new challenges or interesting tasks to increase job satisfaction for your staff beyond fulfilling their vital day-to-day roles.
  • Delegate — Managers are trained to delegate. Think about delegating one of your tasks to one of your staff. Explain how important the task is, and that you have confidence in that person's ability to do it.
  • Develop your staff — Another way to challenge your staff is to take an active role in their career development. Staff should be given opportunities to advance themselves. Talk with them about their career paths. Demonstrate that you care about them improving themselves and are willing to help them. Whether or not they move on to other positions, you will end up with skilled employees who are more confident about their abilities and their value to the organization.
  • Recognize your staff — Employees want recognition and acknowledgment that their work has purpose and is appreciated. Never miss an opportunity to recognize people when they do good work. Even a simple thank-you helps staff see that their work is appreciated. You can, for example, further recognize your staff by acknowledging how important their work is to yours and the organization: "Thanks to your hard work and effort, I was able to submit the budget on time, which secured the grant for us." Everyone thrives on recognition, especially from management.
  • Protect your staff — Low morale can be a sign of a dysfunctional system. If leadership and management are invisible or remote, you have a recipe for low morale. If staff don't feel that management has their backs or if the message is "Do as I say and not what I do," then morale will suffer greatly. As a manager, it is your responsibility to take steps to fix the systemic problem while buffering your staff from stress and finding ways to boost morale.


Striving for high morale should be an organizational value. Good morale takes time to build, constant attention to maintain, and only a moment to destroy. How is the morale in your organization?

Low morale can be understood and turned around, but it takes time and conscious effort. Effective leaders and managers possess a vision for and understanding of their employees: they see their abilities and potential, ensure their jobs are challenging, recognize their achievements, and give them opportunities to grow and learn.

Managers must create a culture of trust as they shape and influence their workplace through role modeling, resource allocation, compensation, and setting criteria for recruitment, promotion, and termination. A climate of trust exists in organizations when managers and leaders do what they say they are going to do and are consistent in their actions. Management can earn trust and improve employee morale by being accessible and authentic while fostering openness.

Creating positive morale is achieved through a diverse approach to relationship building and recognition that focuses on the individual as the most valuable organizational asset. Management that strives to implement the innovations and ideas of staff reinforces their sense of value and respect and fortifies morale.

Joan F. Cheverie is Director of Institute Programs at EDUCAUSE.

© 2018 Joan F. Cheverie. This text is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.