Why Morale Is More than ‘Just Common Sense’

Oct. 8, 2018
There is a lot of ground between knowing what to do and actually getting it done.

I wrote a couple of articles recently that refuted a common misconception among corporate leaders, one that says corporate culture and employee morale are one and the same. Another common argument that those of us in the social sciences hear is, “All that stuff you tell us about employee morale is just common sense.” One of my university students wrote these very words on his or her teacher evaluation form this past semester.

What is it about the social sciences and their application to organizations that make their tenets seem to be no more than common sense?  First, I think that many of the prescriptions of the social sciences sound like variations of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  They are seen as intrinsically “good” and, therefore, irrefutable. Second, most of the prescriptions are familiar. We’ve all heard them time and again. When it comes to human social behavior, there’s not much new under the sun.

Take a look at the following statements:

“Include others in decision-making and problem-solving.”

“Communicate honestly and frequently.”

“Listen to ideas.”

They’re all familiar; they all speak to how we’d like to be treated at work. And so, we see them all as being common sense.

But if it’s all “just common sense,” why isn’t it all common practice?  We know that common sense isn’t common practice because we know that most efforts to make changes to employee morale in organizations fail, some say as much as 75% of the time. If the principles of how to communicate to and motivate organization members are common sense, why is the most important application of those basic principles so difficult for managers to accomplish?

First, there is a lot of ground between knowing what to do and actually getting it done. When I’m helping clients with a pretty challenging change program—the journey to lean manufacturing—we start with the most common sense phase: organizing the workplace. If tools, materials, documents, supplies and information are difficult to find and in bad shape when I do find it, what are the chances that I’m efficiently producing a quality product or service?  So, it’s just “common sense” that an organized workplace is better for everyone than an unorganized workplace. So why is it so very challenging to get managers to embark on, much less sustain, good workplace organization practices?  The answer, of course, is that it’s one thing to “know” that an organized workplace is better than one that isn’t, but it’s entirely another to carry out the disciplined, day-to-day work to create and sustain an organized workplace.

Another bit of “common sense” that we’ve all been hearing for years: if you want fewer problems in your organization, get employees involved in helping you identify and solve problems. So … why don’t more managers and supervisors delegate problem solving to their employees?  Or at least get their input on problems and potential solutions?  I ask this very question to my university students. Easily 70% of them tell me that, indeed, they generally felt left out of problem solving, even when they knew more about an issue than their supervisors did. That pretty well matches the number of employees at my past clients and employers who say similar things. It’s apparent, then, that giving lip service to the value of employee input and actually taking steps to obtain and act on that input are very different enterprises. The former is easy to do, the latter … not so much.

In one sense, those who denigrate the basic principles of human motivation as common sense have a point. The theoretical bases for most of those principles are well-known, having been reported in all media for the past many decades. There aren’t many startlingly new bits of knowledge coming from the scientists with respect to why we all do what we do. What’s too often missing are managers who are willing to carry out the often tedious work necessary to put that “common sense” to use.

I had a client several years ago who was eager to see employee problem solving teams established in all of its plants around the country. During a visit to one of the plants, the general manager told me that he had tried, without success, to get volunteers for a problem-solving team. I was surprised to hear it because I knew that there were a number of bright, engaged employees at the plant. When I asked how he went about his efforts to get volunteers for the problem-solving team, he replied, “We posted a sign-up sheet on the bulletin board next to the time clock.”  I told him that, rather than a sign-up sheet, he needed to go around to his best and brightest employees and actively recruit them. We went together that afternoon to hold conversations with several such workers. We had a strong problem-solving team by quitting time. Common sense told that manager that a signup sheet for garnering members for problem solving teams, an initiative that was new for the plant, would be all that was needed. That common sense was wrong. (Some readers may wonder why I didn’t recommend this approach to the manager in the first place. I guess I thought it was just common sense that active recruitment of team members was better than a sign up sheet!)

On the other hand, I had another client, a general manager of a division of a large public sector organization in Ohio, who agreed with the common sense notion that the more his employees understood about the organization’s strategy, goals, and metrics, the better the organization’s performance would be. Each year, he held a face-to-face meeting with all of his 400+ employees to talk with them about strategy, goals, and metrics. His division was regularly at the top in terms of performance.

My point is that implementing common sense can be difficult. There are few, if any, shortcuts. There are no arcane secrets regarding employee morale that, once known, make the path to high performance quick and easy. It always takes time, energy, focus, and perseverance. In other words, optimal performance is a product of devoted effort over time. Isn’t that just “common sense”?

Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. He is co-author of People Make the Difference, Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance.

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