In last month's column, "How to Prevent--and Rescue--Burnt-Out Employees,"I gave you the signs of burnout and how to prevent it in your employees. But what steps can you take even earlier to keep your employees on the right track? Way before an employee shows any sign of burnout, you may notice a dip in their workplace morale.

Morale is defined as the end result of many factors present in the workplace environment. Some of these factors are the work setting itself, worker satisfaction and action, salary, supervisory input, working conditions, status, and more.

Some of the signs of decreased morale are: tardiness, absenteeism, apathy, moping, backstabbing, decreased quality, decreased productivity, increased errors, accidents or injuries. It's important to note that contrary to popular belief, morale is not a cause, but rather the effect or result of many factors going awry.

Getting to the Root of the Problem
The key to unraveling the mystery of a morale slump is to determine the cause or source of the decreased morale. Some of the usual suspects are:

  • a negative event, such as a firing,
  • a promotion of an employee when others are overlooked, or
  • arguments between staff and/or management.

Other reasons may be:

  • lack of the company's financial health;
  • too much or too heavy of a workload;
  • unappreciated or underappreciated work;
  • working conditions;
  • supervision that's too rigid, demanding, direct or involved in the work process; or
  • supervision that's not supportive or strong enough, and doesn't provide needed guidance or input.

Steps to Improving Morale
Entrepreneurs may have some ideas why morale is poor, and may call in external consultants to help solve the problem. However, the easiest and fastest way to determine at least some of the sources of the issue is to simply ask the employee. Ask what the cause of poor morale is and what the employee believes can be done to turn it around. Obtaining information directly from the person who's experiencing the poor morale can often be an important key to solving this mystery. Additionally, these people will receive a sense of pride and worth that their boss asked them for their input.

Other ways to reach your demotivated employees are:

  • Show concern. If the employee believes the boss doesn't care about the task at hand or doesn't care about the employee, then the employee probably won't care about the task, the employer or the company. And voila!--you have decreased morale.
  • So how can the boss demonstrate concern? Start by using the person's name. Large or small, every business should have names on desks, work stations or cubicles to show that a real person with worth works there, not just a machine. Next, ask their opinion whenever an opportunity arises rather than always telling them what to do or the way to do it. This allows employees to add their own creative thoughts to the work process, which then can lead to more of a feeling of ownership

    Finally, ask how they are. Without wanting to know deeply personal data, the boss can easily show an interest in the individual worker.

  • Provide appropriate feedback. The employee needs to know two crucial variables in this morale equation: what's expected of them and how well they're doing. Without this crucial information, the employee will inevitably overwork or underwork, think of their work as above average or below average, and may stray from achieving the supervisor's goal. In any case, the consequences may be dire and not what the supervisor would want.
  • Create goals--especially mutually acceptable goals. As they say, if you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up someplace else! An employee without a clear understanding of the goals or without a sense of how thier work fits into the overall goal of the unit, department or section, can easily waste time on tasks that aren't consistent with the boss's objectives. The result is squandered time and resources, plus a reprimanded employee who doesn't understand why the boss disapproves of their efforts.
  • Once the supervisor can sit with the employee and explain in clear, action-oriented terms what the task at hand is about, the employee will feel better and perform more effectively. If given a chance to moderate, modify or discuss the goals and reach a mutually acceptable conclusion, the employee's performance will usually skyrocket. Morale will definitely improve as a result.
  • Offer recognition of the employee's efforts. It takes but a few seconds to say, "Nice job," "Well done," "Marked improvement," "You're on the right road," or any number of other phrases that communicate to the employee that you care about the job and about them, and that you recognize an improvement in productivity. Also, employees can be given performance awards or have their name mentioned at staff meetings, posted on a bulletin boards or in employee interoffice e-mail to say that someone did a noteworthy job. All of these simple modes of pointing out individual, team or group behavior serve as very strong methods of improving productivity, self-worth and morale.

Another strategy for identifying the cause of poor morale and turning it around is to determine if the work load is sufficient or too pressured, challenging or boring, professionally satisfying or not. As long as the current job isn't overly taxing, provide more challenging tasks--either in breadth or depth to spark an interest in employees. When completed, the employee will discover a sense of accomplishment, feel increased self-worth, and be more productive. And as a result, productivity and morale will increase.

The next step, and one that often follows more challenging tasks, is to promote people for their achievements. When employees see that their boss recognizes and rewards accomplishments, they'll be more satisfied, and their self-esteem and prestige will increase along with the amount in their paycheck. This method of attacking poor morale can be extremely productive for all parties involved.