You Might Have the Wrong Idea about Employee Morale

July 27, 2018
Management’s job is to create a work environment that sustains and grows the motivation employees came with when they were hired.

In my recent article, “You Have the Wrong Idea About Corporate Culture” I addressed the confusion that many managers have about the relationship between corporate culture and employee morale. While researching the piece, I came across a number of articles that spoke of ping-pong tables as a means to improve employee morale and productivity.

Here are a few things I learned about ping-pong tables at work. (These are actual article excerpts; I can’t make this stuff up.)

“Ping pong tables … are genuinely one of the only few active indoor games that promote strategic thinking under the pretense of taking a break.”

“It’s all about the cool workplace; more and more people are hearing about Facebook, Innocent Smoothies and Google offices.”

“Whipping your boss or senior colleagues at [ping pong] will feel good, will get you noticed. You'll earn the respect of your fellow colleagues, and a little competitive spirit is great for morale.”

Mind you, I have nothing at all against ping-pong tables, snacks, free coffee and Danish, or anything else at work that benefits employees. On the other hand, the notion that these perks can achieve lasting improvement to employee morale is utterly false.  Further, that mistaken notion can lead managers to make the wrong decisions on behalf of improving and sustaining good morale.

My first job was as a trainer to coal miners. Some of my fellow trainers had many years of experience working as laborers, equipment operators and supervisors in the mines. Conditions in coal mines are dangerous, uncomfortable and physically rigorous. And yet my fellow trainers often told me that they missed being in the mines. They missed the camaraderie. Most of all, they missed the daily challenge of doing a difficult job well. 

The same was true at a steel company for which I worked. Men and women worked in environments and under conditions that I was afraid to walk into, much less spend eight hours a day in. And yet they often expressed great satisfaction in their jobs. 

When I’ve talked with employees of coal companies, steel makers, health care providers and many other organizations about the sources of their unhappiness, I’ve never heard “we wish we had a ping pong table here.”  Or, “We want to bring our dogs to work and management won’t let us.” 

I have heard unhappy employees say things like, “We’re constantly pressured to perform at a high level, but we aren’t given the materials, equipment, tools and information necessary to do the job well.”

Or, “We never hear when we do something right, but we hear it right away if we make a mistake.”  Or, “We have lots of ideas as to how to improve our operations, but talking to management about them is like talking to a stone.” 

The Myth of Stress Management

I once worked at a large teaching hospital in Cleveland as the director of management development. One of the managers asked me if I might develop and conduct what he referred to as “stress management” classes for his employees.  After a bit of conversation, it became clear that the manager felt that morale had declined in his department, and he surmised that the stress of their work was the cause. 

I told him that I’d design and conduct “stress management” classes if that’s what he really wanted, but that he shouldn’t expect much benefit from them.  He seemed surprised by my answer, so I went on to explain my views of employee stress and its impact on morale. 

Many healthcare jobs are inherently stressful, and one can either handle that stress or one can’t.  Those who are built to withstand the stress generally have high job satisfaction (morale) because of the nature of the work, not in spite of it.  On the other hand, stress that demotivates employees and hinders their performance generally has its source in the way the organization is being managed.

If hospital employees (or anyone else, for that matter) feel that they are being given unattainable goals by managers who don’t understand the conditions their employees face, those employees will experience demotivating, morale-killing stress. 

If employees are mandated to follow policies and procedures that have little to do with protecting the interests of patients, customers, or their fellow employees, they will experience demotivating, morale-killing stress.

If employees are held to high standards of performance but not provided the information, materials, equipment, tools, and training they need, they will experience demotivating, morale-killing stress. 

There’s no class anywhere that teaches employees how to manage that stress. My colleague got my point and didn’t press his request for “stress management” classes.

Keeping Employees Engaged and Excited

I teach organizational culture in the business school at a large state college near Cleveland.  When we get to the class on motivation for performance, I tell my students to get rid of the idea that they will, or even can, “motivate” their future employees as if they were empty vessels to be filled with some magic elixir that causes them to do what they wouldn’t do otherwise.

 Management’s job is to create a work environment that sustains and grows the motivation employees came with when they were hired. In other words, while there’s not much a manager can do to motivate employees who just don’t want to do the work they’ve been hired to do, managers can do a lot to keep motivated employees engaged and excited about the work at hand.

So, just what does a manager who is genuinely interested in creating an engaging work environment do?  Well, there are volumes written about that, so we can’t cover it all here.  But there is something you can start with: Go have a talk with your employees, during which you’ll get responses to these three inquiries:

1.      Tell me about something that you, your team, your department is really good at.  I’m especially interested in something you’re good at that you haven’t been much recognized for.

2.      Tell me about some of the challenges and barriers that you, your team, your department run into as you do your work. 

3.      Tell me about any ideas that you have that would improve our organization and how we do things.

If you have a small organization, ask these questions of everyone. If you’re at the top of a large organization, go down two or three levels and across departments until you’ve had several dozen such conversations.  (Several dozen? One of the best managers I’ve known directed over 400 managers, supervisors, and union employees. At some point during each fiscal year, he had a discussion with each of them about the organization’s vision and goals.) 

And here’s the thing … you aren’t going to do this just once.  You’re going to do it at least annually. As you’re holding these conversations, you’re going to bring the information back to your top managers with the question: “What are we going to do about this?”

None of this is to say that employees don’t like ping-pong tables, snacks, bringing their puppies to work, “beer Fridays” and so on. Nor is it to say that employers shouldn’t provide hard-working, diligent, talented employees with things they like, including healthy, safe work conditions and good pay.  It is to say that what employees like and what motivates employees to work together to achieve goals that surprise them and their organizations aren’t always the same things.

Employees like ping pong tables. Employees are devoted to organizations that engage them.  One is easy to provide; the other is more challenging but far more lasting.

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