Are You Serious About Improving Employee Morale?

By David Lee

Reprinted from The Employment Times, January 19, 2004


One of the questions I’m most frequently asked is “How can we improve morale?” Because morale affects every aspect of a company’s competitive advantage, it’s an important question to ask.

Business objectives that relate to your company’s success, such as increasing quality, productivity, and customer loyalty, while reducing turnover, absenteeism, and safety related costs, are all influenced by employee morale. Therefore, keeping morale high should be on every manager’s radar screen.


You Want High Employee Morale, But… Are You Asking the Wrong Question?

Here’s the problem, though: most managers and HR professionals start off their quest to improve morale on the wrong foot. They doom their morale building efforts from the beginning by asking the wrong question. It usually goes something like this: “We need to improve morale. What program would you recommend that doesn’t cost much (or anything)?” The way they frame this critical issue reveals two serious errors in perspective and it offers a clue why morale might be a problem in the first place.


Are You “Being Penny Wise and Dollar Foolish” … or Just Plain Delusional?

The fact that the request includes the qualifier “doesn’t cost much (or anything)” reveals the first perspective error. Not being willing to invest in a factor – employee morale – that so powerfully affects their organization’s success is simply being “penny wise and dollar foolish.”

Approaching the issue of improving employee morale from the perspective of “We want to improve this critical driver of our success, but we don’t want to invest time and money in making it happen” makes as much sense as saying “We want to deliver world class customer service, but we don’t want to invest in hiring the best people or taking the time and money to train them well.” It’s beyond illogical; it’s delusional. People who say they want to improve morale, but aren’t willing to invest in it, need to examine both their sincerity and their logic.


Are You Trying to Solve an Experiential Problem–Employee Morale–With Goodies, Gimmicks, and Gala Events?

Besides the “penny wise, dollar foolish” perspective error, such a request reveals a second perspective error: trying to solve an experiential problem with a material solution. In the typical request, the person sees the solution in the form of a program, as if just the right event, award ceremony, or fun little program will make a lasting change in morale.

It won’t. Goodies, gimmicks, and gala events, on their own, don’t lead to high morale. Nor do any quick fix “solutions.” In fact, when such events and programs contradict workers’ daily experience of not being respected, valued, or appreciated; these approaches have just the opposite effect. They lead to an even more cynical, distrustful, and disengaged workforce.


High Employee Morale Comes From Intrinsically Rewarding Work…Not Goodies, Gimmicks, and Gala Events

What does lead to high morale is an intrinsically rewarding work experience: a work experience where employees feel respected, valued, and appreciated; a work experience where employees get to be players and not just hired hands, a work experience where they get to make a difference. With such a work experience, employees don’t need to be bribed, they don’t have to be plied with goodies to make them want to come to work and do their best.

Thus, the second critical perspective error that dooms the goodies, gimmicks, and gala events approach to failure is trying to solve what is fundamentally an experiential issue with material “solutions” (i.e. goodies) and events. Morale problems are experiential problems, they’re a result of a negative or dissatisfying work experience, whether due to the actual job itself, one’s relationship with one’s boss, not having adequate training, or the myriad of other factors that affect morale. Because morale is a problem of a unsatisfying work experience, the answer is in changing the work experience. More specifically, the answer is in creating an intrinsically rewarding work experience, a work experience that itself is rewarding (not always fun, but rewarding).

You don’t create such a work experience with one time events or material perks. Holding an Employee Appreciation Day, having Dress Down Fridays, or giving employees company logo doesn’t create an intrinsically rewarding work experience. What does? Designing a work experience based on the plethora of research about which organizational factors, managerial practices, and human needs lead to an inspired, engaged workforce.


Would You Use This Approach In Your Personal Life?

Because the goodies, gimmicks and gala events approach to improving morale is so prevalent, I want to risk belaboring this point by using an analogy that I hope makes it even more evident why this approach doesn’t work.

To dramatize the folly of trying to solve an experiential issue with a material solution or an event, let’s translate this approach into a personal life application. Imagine the following scenario: a co-worker tells you his wife just told him she’s unhappy with their relationship. He doesn’t remember the exact reasons she stated, but he does remember her saying she’s not satisfied. He tells you he’s been thinking about what to do about this, and has come up with two possible solutions. He wants your feedback on which is better. His solutions? Either buy her a Miata or take her on a Caribbean cruise. Now, if those are his solutions, might you have some clues about why his wife isn’t happy?

Although his level of cluelessness might seem absurd, it does illustrate the same thought process underlying the request for a morale-building program. In our marital example, instead of learning what relationship needs of hers aren’t being met and working with his wife to create a marital experience where they are being met, he thinks his salvation lies in a material solution, either the perfect material object – the Miata – or the perfect event – the Caribbean cruise.

But, material solutions or events don’t satisfy experiential needs. In this example, such experiential needs might include spending more time together, being listened to rather than being talked at or ignored, being treated with respect and caring, etc. In the workplace, the need to matter, the need to be proud of your work and your employer, and the need for autonomy[1] are a few of the experiential needs that impact morale and productivity. If these experiential needs aren’t met, no material “solution” or event will make a difference.


Four Points To Guide Your Employee Morale Building Efforts

Let’s move on to four thoughts for you and your management team to keep in mind as you explore this issue of improving morale by creating an intrinsically rewarding work experience. Consider these four points:


1) Remember That Goodies, Gimmicks, and Gala Events Are The Frosting, Not The Cake – Although goodies, gimmicks, and gala events aren’t the solution to improved morale, they do have a place in the overall approach. They’re appropriate when done as part of a larger effort and when they’re not done instead of the hard work that needs to take place.

Organizations known for having a great workplace frequently put on a variety of fun events and special programs, and often shower employees with various “goodies.” These programs and perks work for them because they’re an honest representation of how management feels about, and treats, employees day in and day out. Managers in these companies recognize that such programs and perks are the frosting on the cake, they’re not the cake. They understand that the “cake” is the work experience.

For these organizations, their generous perks, gala events, fun programs are a congruent manifestation of the ongoing relationship between labor and management, and a congruent extension of their employees’ work experience. Returning to the example of giving a partner a special gift, if the relationship isn’t good, such a gift is seen as missing the point (“I don’t want an expensive gift, I want to spend time together!”) and perhaps even a transparent manipulation. But, if that special gift is a natural expression of a special relationship, it both communicates and strengthens the specialness of that relationship.

Therefore, as you develop a strategy to improve morale, don’t make goodies, gimmicks, and gala events the centerpiece or the foundation of your strategy. See them for what they are: the frosting and not the cake.


2) Make Sure All Managers Understand “It’s the Little Things, and Every Little Thing Matters” – Morale is not improved by a one time, dramatic display of appreciation. Morale is improved – or damaged – one interaction at a time. Every time employees interact with their manager, it’s a Moment of Truth. Every time they interact with their employer, whether in the form of a company-wide policy or communication, it’s a Moment of Truth.

Just as in customer service, each moment of truth affects how the organization is perceived. The sum total of these moments of truth determine how the employee feels about his or employer. Thus, each moment of truth matters.

Thus, instead of focusing on one time events and dramatic displays of concern and appreciation, your management team needs to “think small.” They need to focus on those simple day to day encounters that might seem insignificant, but which through their cumulative effect, determine morale. In the words of branding expert Scott Bedbury, you want your managers to understand that “Everything Matters”.

It matters whether a manager notices the good things an employee does or just notices their mistakes. It matters whether a manager asks employees for their input before making a decision that impacts their daily work or just goes ahead and makes the change, expecting employees to “just deal with it.”

It matters whether managers get back to employees promptly about their requests or have to be repeatedly pursued for an answer. It matters whether managers say “Thank you” when employees go the extra mile or take it for granted. In short: ”Everything Matters.” Therefore, all managers need to be more focused on the many moments of truth that build or destroy morale.

It’s important to help managers understand this for two reasons. First, with most people being overloaded with work, it’s natural for managers to sprint through the day without taking time to consider the impact of their interactions. “Everything Matters” helps them remember the importance of paying attention to each interaction and giving it their best. Second, because most people are unlikely to give their boss negative feedback, managers never realize the negative impact of mishandled moments of truth. Because they don’t get that feedback, they don’t receive evidence that Everything Matters.

Thus, by helping managers make “Everything Matters” a mantra, it helps them become more alert to, and mindful of, the many little moments of truth each day brings, and increases the odds that the outcome of each will be morale-building.


3) Most of the Answers Are Within You and Your Workforce… So Ask – The answer to improving morale in your company doesn’t come from the latest management fad. It doesn’t come from giving every employee copies of Who Moved My Cheese or making them watch a Fish! video. The answer comes from you and your workforce. Because each company has a unique culture and a unique set of problems causing diminished morale, no off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all, quick fix “solution” will address the unique challenges and needs your organization faces.

Furthermore, trying to force a pre-packaged solution onto employees usually backfires. No one likes to have things forced on them; we do like to be involved in solving problems.

Creating a “home grown” customized solution for low morale, obviously requires finding out the causative factors. Rather than guess what they are, ask. Just as importantly, make sure you don’t ask unless you are truly willing to honestly address them. Most managers drop the ball at this step. They ask for input, employees give the input, and then nothing is ever done with the input. The result? Decreased morale and trust; increased resentment and cynicism.

Doing this right also means involving employees in generating solutions. Because Everything Matters, just the fact that you involve employees in generating solutions wins you “morale brownie points.” Doing so shows you respect them. It also taps into the need to matter – to be a player and not just a hired hand, and the innate drive to solve problems, two factors that strongly impact morale.


4) Be Willing To Look In The Mirror – Especially If You’re At The Top – If there’s a morale problem, there’s a leadership problem. The problem is, when things aren’t going well, it’s human nature to look outside ourselves for the cause. If you’re a manager, especially a senior manager, have you asked yourself “What am I doing that might be contributing to – or even driving – low morale?”

If you are contributing to low morale, chances are good that no one has told you this. Bosses don’t hear these things, because most employees realize criticizing their boss isn’t exactly the fast track to success. Thus, most bosses never hear about the many things they inadvertently do that diminishes employee morale. Thus, they continue to do things that damage morale, and wonder why turnover is high or employee relations issues plague their company.

Because power brings immunity from feedback, you will need to actively seek out feedback – if you’re truly serious about improving morale. You will need to ask for feedback and learn how to make it safe for people to respond honestly. Approaches and tools that can yield useful information include the many leadership assessment tools available, 360 degree survey tools, having HR or an external consultant interview people you deal with, and executive coaching.



If you want to improve employee morale, remember that goodies, gimmicks, and gala events are not the answer. They’re the icing on the cake, not the cake. The cake is an intrinsically rewarding work experience. To find out how you can create one, ask. Then work together with your employees to make it a reality.



[1] Regarding the need for autonomy, research by Blessing/White showed that autonomy was the strongest predictor of discretionary effort. Discretionary effort is the amount of work employees do above and beyond that require to keep their jobs. The greater the autonomy, the greater the discretionary effort.