Headstart: Careers – Staff morale and the art of motivation.

Motivating the down and demotivated is hard but not impossible if you can summon the organisational gumption to tackle the causes. The resident doom and gloom-mongers relish despondency, but if the organisation is seen to be ‘doing something’ it is harder for malcontents to whinge.

It’s heavy-going working in a sulphurous cloud of bad morale, so the danger is that valuable employees up and leave for a more positive environment, while those left become bitter – creating a vicious cycle.

So what can managers do?

Open up communication channels, never let grapevine gossip and rumours run uncorrected. But don’t try to suppress dissenters and rebels – as in the political arena – for they just go underground, as ‘corporate guerrillas’, where they create more chaos. Let them have their say, as they will regardless, and counteract genuine criticisms honestly.

The occasional night at Mama Mia’s pasta parlour may help to build team unity and get the department talking, other than just, ‘Pass the stapler please’.

Build a sense of belonging, because being part ‘of something’ is vital and if employees feel like individuals who just happen to holed up in an office together, morale is going to suffer. The phrase ‘tales from around the water cooler’ has become part of the popular lingo, emphasising the informal nature of office interaction.

This is not to suggest that everyone can be bonded into one happy (and compliant) unit, and, in fact, difference and individuality are a force for good.

In human resource terms, promoting flexibility and work-life balance shows understanding of employee needs. Encouraging flexible hours, part-time working, unpaid leave, sabbaticals, home-working, ‘duvet days’ and job sharing can pay off. Presenting career development opportunities makes people feel there is purpose behind what they do and helps remove feelings of treading stagnant water.

Conduct exit interviews for leavers and act on what they say wherever possible – because they will do their own informal ‘exit interviews’ with your remaining employees anyway.

Don’t ignore employees’ values. People’s goals change with their circumstances but their values tend to remain constant over time.

At one end of the spectrum corporate social responsibility has become a hot topic in recent years but on a basic level no one wants to work for an organisation they consider to be unethical or treats employees, the environment, customers or any other stakeholders badly. Public image matters in this age of mass communication.

The main message is ‘it’s better out than in’. Face up to bad morale – don’t just hope it gets a new job with a competitor and goes away.

– Carol Glover is contributing editor of People Management.

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