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Always look on the bright side of life

The secret to good morale in the workplace is good leadership. Sound obvious. But why is it so hard to achieve? E&T reviews a new book addressing the issue.

High morale provides a strong competitive edge, and makes it easier to support the implementation of new strategies. It helps businesses attract and retain talented people, makes the workplace easier to manage, and increases productivity. It can lead to less absenteeism and stress, create higher customer satisfaction and with luck better financial results.

Why then do many companies find high morale so difficult to achieve? A new book, 'Employee Morale: driving performance in challenging times' explores these issues, explaining morale, how it can be measured, and how its power can be tapped to create extraordinary gains in productivity, customer loyalty and financial results.

How do you avoid situations like the problems at the Royal Mail, or the threats of strikes by British Airways and London Transport leading companies too often facing doom and gloom and an increasingly angry public?

If leadership is a key factor, where are the leaders to set the tone, drive the culture, inspire and display the intellectual power to forge ahead strategically? Management issues, and how they are handled, have a strong impact on employees.

These include the organisation's reputation, wages and benefits, career development opportunities, job security, productivity, working conditions and decision-making.

If all these operate well and morale is high, does it need measuring? Can morale be measured? If it can, as the book argues, how effective are the different ways of measuring it? We are told these measurement tools range from the casual chat to the 'open door' approach, group/team meetings, reviews, focus groups and employee opinion surveys. Surveys are common, which means they can be held in low regard by employees so how can they be taken more seriously?


First you have to have a level of morale worth measuring, or such efforts will never be taken seriously. How do organisations achieve this? Are they just lucky, or is there an especially charismatic leader, a healthy market position or, in the case of a small start-up, the excitement and Herculean efforts of the founders which is often shared by their first employees?

Management, the authors contend, is the key to high morale. In most cases, everything else pales in comparison. Although top management has an impact on morale 'it's not top management with whom most employees have much contact. It is the local or department manager, supervisor, team leader or whoever has the power to hire, fire, carry out performance reviews, grant salary increases and/or bonuses etc. For us, that is the key relationship related to morale for the average employee.'

What action can be taken when a survey identifies management as the core problem?

Flattening the organisational structure is one option. Restructuring is considered to have huge benefits, for example: in reduced costs due to less management requirements and possibly central support functions; it improves communication because each layer acts as a 'sponge' by being in the chain of information flow and by the very human need to 'justify one's existence' and, by having less management to direct and control their activities, team members are free to make more decisions, both individually and as a group.

Measuring morale

The twin challenge being to achieve high morale and to maintain it, what action can be taken when measurement shows it slipping? What degree of slippage is serious?

The measurement process should spot early trends and target action. The trends defined by the authors include: lower morale following an HR policy or practice change, such as a new overall compensation system or sales force rewards; flat or lower morale in a specific group in a year when the organisation overall is tending upwards.

Changes that result in a noticeable drop in morale need quick, decisive action. Among morale killers is 'the boss from hell' and sacrificing a troublemaker in the interests of the team.

The authors make a convincing case as to why morale is important, and how can it be achieved. In the end it all boils down to performance, although performance can depend on compensation and reward. Of course, surviving a crisis is far easier when morale is high and sacrifices are shared. High morale, we are told, supports the implementation of organisational strategies; and the morale process (measurement-implementation) gives employees a voice; but is this not normally the case?

High morale helps organisations attract and retain talented people, but this clearly depends on the extent to which high morale is part of corporate image and reputation.

Working with unions

High morale, as the authors regularly restate, can make the workplace easier to manage and can increase productivity. It can also reduce workplace accidents, absenteeism, stress, sickness and days off. But can high morale help organisations to work better with unions; and lead to higher customer satisfaction?

The base on which to build a model of organisational morale by examining every aspect of work life sounds sensible, but life is rarely as straightforward and simplistic.

Consider the case of a young, fast-growing company where all the ingredients of morale-building are near perfect, but at which the board will not be bullied into forcing employees to join an aggressive trade union. Both sides are equally resolute and the dispute permeates the business community. The company's reputation and recruitment suffer. The final solution is to accept an unwanted takeover bid from a larger competitor at the cost of the loss of a carefully nurtured brand which once consisted of high morale and a successful growth record.

This book examines all the components of maintaining high morale, but is less convincing on the trickier question of how to build high morale in the first place, for example, in a newly acquired company where morale has been low and the acquiring company's good morale is viewed with extreme suspicion. With mergers and acquisitions expected to gain renewed fervour, combining two often-diverse cultures will test the authors' assumptions on morale building and measurement.

The very question is raised by the authors; do we actively create high morale, or do we create the conditions which would allow all the enthusiasm, commitment, engagement and motivation in our workforce to come out, if we only just step out of the way?

'Simply stepping away before you have diagnosed morale in your organisation, before you know where you are starting from, stepping away while all sorts of dysfunctional practices are in place, is a recipe for disaster. Would you build a house without having someone carefully examine the basis on which you are building?'

Creating high morale is a long-term task. It's nevertheless helpful to hear that 'building and maintaining high morale is not an HR programme, but a responsibility which starts at the top involves every single individual in the organisation'. HR has a role in compensation practices and training programmes and increasingly in strategic and operational management, but surely ought to be still far more involved, as this book suggests.

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