5 Secrets to Boost Employee Morale During a Crisis

5 Secrets to Boost Employee Morale During a Crisis

Morale is the confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline of a person or group at a particular time (of course according to Google, you don’t need to waste time looking it up). In other words, it is the degree to which someone voluntarily provides extra effort when the need arises. It is the root for Engagement and Loyalty.

If you are running a business or leading a team during a crisis one of your top concerns should be “does my team have the Morale to get through this?” Unless you are focused on this, the degree to which you can produce value may dwindle.

Even if you did not care about a crisis you would still want morale in your team. Because High morale results in high loyalty, which results in high productivity, which in turns brings high profitability.

Why is Employee Morale important?

There are many business leaders, who are publicly known to be incompetent in their technical capabilities but were able to build multi billion dollar corporations just because they understood how to build employee morale.

Morale is something that is produced within you. It is at the heart of an individual. It is the internal strength fuelled by your beliefs and your own vision. Its intensity can be magnified or reduced like an incandescent bulb on in a dark room – the controls are in your hands. An unhappy person, a scared person, a disappointed person, can still produce great work if they have a strong internal drive to deliver. At times of crisis, organisation morale is put to the test, and those who pass the test survive the storm and drinks from the fountain of longevity.

There is definitely a relationship between Employee Morale, “Employee Engagement” and “Employee Loyalty”. It is that Morale is the root of what gives fruit to Loyalty and Engagement . Morale is more critical in a world where people are becoming more and more independent. Morale deals closely with an individual’s heart rather than his function. Therefore, it is the cause of all good and evil when it comes to workforce management. If organisations focus purely on creating this inner drive in people – they would see that loyalty and engagement blossom like how flowers do in the spring.

This article looks at keys to building high morale in a team. I attempt to shift the paradigm of conventional leadership thinking from creating loyalty and engagement to building morale. High morale is expensive, and it can’t be purchased by simply depositing the monthly wage at the bank. For those who seek all the good things of a great workforce, you must be willing to invest the time effort, blood, sweat and tears needed to create great morale. Based on strong research cases, and evidence presented by World War II veterans, this article looks at 5 rules so that you can navigate times of crisis.

1. When the going gets tough, leaders get going.

Leaders must lead from the front: Whenever the task can mean life or death, whenever the end is uncertain, whenever the decision is to risk one and save the rest – weak leaders push others to the forefront. Strong leaders take the forefront themselves.

In his article “The Principles of Leadership” Colonel John H. Carruth (1942, Dec) mentions this story [1]:

Now, let me give you an example of leadership.

In 1915, I was a Second Lieutenant of the companies of Engineers stationed at Texas City, Texas. My company was camped on the northern shore of Galveston Bay, just opposite Galveston. On August 16, storm signals were put up by the Weather Bureau Station in Texas City, and we were warned that a hurricane was approaching the coast of Texas, and that a tidal wave would probably strike that part of the coast. I was a carefree, happy-go-lucky “shave-tail” and did not pay much attention to the warning; but I do remember that we tightened the ropes of our tents, and drove some extra nails in our tent frames.

About one o’clock in the morning one of my classmates came by my tent and woke me up, shouting: “For God’s sake, get out of here, or you’ll be drowned.” When I got out of my bed, I stepped into about 2 feet of water. The Captain (now Colonel) was one of the great men of the Corps of Engineers. His name is Ernst “Pot” Graves. I went over to the company where he was. The water at that time was about waist deep. The wind was blowing at about 75 miles per hour, and it was dark as pitch, except for the occasional flashes of lightning. The only place of safety to which we could go was a cold storage warehouse, which was about half a mile from our camp, but there were a number of large drainage ditches in between.

Captain Graves’ solution was to order the Supply Sergeant to get a coil of 2-inch rope from the supply tent. He tied the rope around his waist and went to the head of the company, and all the men grasped the rope in a long column. Leading the way through the storm and wreckage, he took the entire company over to the warehouse where they were safe. We lost one man by drowning on the way, he probably fell off the rope when struggling across a drainage.

That is an example of leadership; of how a strong man will rise to meet an emergency and take command of the situation

2. Morale is high when leaders are disciplined

Morale never dies when a team goes through a crisis. In fact, hardships usually increase loyalty because teams are willing to go through it when they understand it is beyond the control of their leader(s). On the contrary, when the hardship occurs due to the negligence of a leader morale takes a nose-dive. This is the belief of an army that is put to the forefront of war [2].

If you are struggling to maintain morale levels due to the current crisis, you must look at the discipline of your leaders. Have they planned well ahead for a crisis such as this? Have there been measures planned for surprising circumstances?

It is not too late to start planning for the worst even at this moment by making sure that you have thought through every possible scenario that could come forth in the coming months. Such a plan made transparent to your team can lift morale up so that at the frontlines even the most junior worker understands what his role is in bringing the company back on its feet.

3. Communicate clearly and precisely about what matters to employees, not only about what matters to the company.

Through 1938 to 1960, in the midst of World War II and an impending economic recession, Sears, Roebuck and Company (the American department store chain) invested millions on measuring employee morale[3]. It was imperative for them to determine what kept morale high in difficult circumstances and in general. It was not a walk in the park, because it meant external consultants would graze on uncomfortable territory – probing into the daily work of its sales staff and middle layers of management. No one likes too many questions from a consultant. So, the leadership knew getting the middle management convinced of this was going to be harder than conducting and analyzing a survey for their 37,000 people . But after a daring amount of cajoling and convincing, Sears finally implemented the survey. The first round of research found out that the top three contributors to high morale was:

  1. Belief that the company treats you fairly
  2. Belief that you have a satisfactory future with the company
  3. Belief that you are given interesting work

Notice the key word “belief”. It would be absolutely useless if a company is doing everything possible to create an environment that’s fair and growth driven but does not communicate it right. In contrast, there could be companies doing nothing to be fair or stable but create the false belief that they do (Examples – the last years of Enron, Stratton Oakmont). Although the latter’s efforts are always short-lived, it does the job of creating morale.

In a time of crisis you must treat communication like your morning, afternoon and evening coffee. You shouldn’t go a day without it. It must be focused on the individual employee needs as much as it is about what’s going on in the company. It must reassure that the company’s situation will not affect the values you have already established.

4. Think “Reciprocation” and not “Compensation”

Most employers believe that the wage bill at the end of the month, is an accurate figure that compensates the effort its staff puts into their work. But it is not. The salary figure is never determined by assessing the effort of labour – it is usually defined by the macro economics of the industry. If you take a wood worker, his cost of labour is determined by how much the market is willing to pay for the end product. A software engineer today gets paid exorbitantly because the market demands that skill like never before – but the day software engineering becomes commonplace, high wages such as that of today won’t be the norm anymore. Does that mean a software engineer in the future will put in less intellectual work to do their job?

 But human beings are emotional creatures. Eventually the wage at the end of the month isn’t going to guarantee’s they love doing their job. There are many emotional factors that must be considered as “reciprocators” to good work. If an employer shifts from the mindset of “Compensation” to “Reciprocation”. This is where the few great places to work differ from the rest.

The sine qua non of these emotional factors contributing to morale can be found in the Sears survey, which is the belief that you are being “treated fair”. The perception of what is “fair” and what is “unfair” however, can differ by context, can differ by company and can differ by the individual. In the end your talent must feel you’ve provided them an equal ground to showcase their potential and that you treat them as you would yourself. You must show that you value them as individuals, and not just their work. If done right, inevitably they would feel obliged to reciprocate that fully and wholeheartedly through their work. Because that is human nature[4].

Three German economists decided to take a look at how reciprocity pans out in favour of morale [5]. The researchers advertised for a job opportunity to catalogue books in a German University library. The target group was students looking for part time jobs at an hourly wage. The advertisement read “projected salary of 15 euros per hour” suggesting that the salary may vary based on the interview. After interviewing and selecting candidates, the hired were broken to three groups, without their knowledge. The first was paid the 15 Euros an hour as promised, the second was paid only 10 Euros (less than the base expectation) while the third was paid 20 euros (more than the base expectation). The study found that the lower paid group showed a 20% reduction in productivity while the other two groups showed similar amounts of productivity. 10 Euros was already higher than what any student would have got paid for part time work at that time. But the fact that their baseline pay was not met, impacted the morale of the workers. The study also goes to show that paying more than a base expectation will not improve productivity, however the feeling of being treated unfairly by getting paid less than the base expectation pushed individuals to “punish” the employer by doing less work than possible.

Since performance pay, employee relationship development and other factors were not considered we can’t assume that it was the wage cut that made the difference. Rather, the learning from the study is that an individual must feel fairly valued, and that they are given at least the basic level of importance for the work that they are assigned to. This feeling of being treated fair motivates one to reciprocate sincere hard work.

Most leaders forget that it is the little promises which you take for granted that takes a toll on an individual. It is the expectations that are not formally penned on the employment contract, that makes the largest difference . Little things like this could span from having fair considerations for promotions, overseas travel opportunities, learning opportunities to how compliments and appreciation is handed out for good work. This “fairness” will be validated the moment an organization is able to meet their “baseline” promise that delivers their best to the individual. This will gain you the utmost productivity even in times of crisis. Shortcomings in this “baseline” promise would cause severe productivity loss.

5. Foster strong nurturing relationships especially between the individual and their manager

Once the top three reasons for employee Morale was discovered in the first iteration of the survey, the Sears management was excited that the findings validated the contemporary thought about loyalty at the time  “High salaries and low work hours don’t improve employee morale”. In fact, the head of Human Resources (Personnel Management at the time), James Worthy, mentioned that companies should forget that salaries and financial incentives are the main ingredient in keeping morale high[6]. What they didn’t realize was the survey had a minute detail they didn’t pay attention to – the fact that employees rated Salary and Promotion as one of the worst elements of being employed with Sears, alluding to the first two points of the survey findings as well as the deficiency of reciprocation. But why wasn’t this captured in the final report? The reason was on how the analysis was done. The questionnaire was designed and implemented by a management consultant named David J Houser, from Houser Associates – while his management knowledge was sound he did not factor in social science elements that could have unearthed more insights.

This is why Sears decided that the morale assessment survey should be enhanced with more social science and anthropological perspectives. This would allow the company to have long term solutions to their morale issues, rather than being reactive as with the Houser surveys.

The 2nd iteration of the programme was named “The organization survey” so that it was positioned as something the organization committed to, rather than being called an “Employee survey” or “Employee morale survey” which they feared would connote a nit-picking of employee attitudes and performance which could shun away any sort of honesty from the participants, losing the credibility of the findings. The ‘organization survey’ had a new element to it called “Non Directive Interviewing” (NDI). Without having only a simple set of questions to answer, this time the survey would have someone interview people deeply on how they thought work was going. The interview was not going to be structured, it was going to allow someone to talk freely about what the interviewer asked them. Bound to take longer to complete, the surveyors had to focus on groups that were at high risk rather than focusing on the whole company.

From the first round of results Sears found that the highest attrition occurred in white collar employees who prepared the Sears catalogue. Nobody knew why. So then they immediately dived in with the organization survey for that group – interviewing each and every individual who were at potential attrition or was at high risk of organizing a labour union against the leadership. For the first time in assessing, the findings unveiled something that was had nothing to do with the company’s processes and policies. It unveiled that the most important aspect that determined employee attitude towards work ,in other words their morale, was the relationship they had with coworkers, and especially the relationship with the immediate manager.

With the newfound knowledge, Sears immediately implemented training for its leaders to be more relationship oriented within the workplace. Intervention was swift and specific. In the coming quarters the company saw a significant drop in unionization and attrition. An unprecedented feat in the industry. One key part of the training programme was getting middle managers to conduct the survey interviews themselves – most often these mid-level managers were picked to be groomed for their next level of leadership. By going through the interviews they identified first-hand the people issues at the ground level, it gave them the opportunity to think in terms of solving people issues and made them better leaders.

Sears got through multiple crises due to its focus on people operations and research. However, it was an uphill battle to convince the management to keep investing in the research of employee morale. Much like in the military though, the focus was on building people and allowing them to shine and drive the organization into employee orientation.

There is much for organizations to gain in building employee morale, rather than engagement or loyalty. A focus on the emotional attachment towards the work can allow for high productivity, creativity and as a result high profitability.

At the outset morale can seem like an organization process issue, but under a microscope it is a leadership issue. And what better place to test the strength of leadership than a crisis where true leaders are forced to rise to the occasion? Crises are like the second womb of a leader. Unlike the smooth and cozy confines of the maternal womb, a crisis is a never-ending barbecue of hopes, dreams, possessions and sometimes even your flesh and blood. At the end of it, your individual needs are stripped to bare bones, and survival becomes primary. Those who are able to toil through these troughs, helping others as they would do for themselves, emerge victorious, emerge strong, emerge with a team so loyal they’ll throw their lives away at whisk. In these pressing times of COVID-19, where humanity’s stiff ego has been cracked, bent and forced to prostration, true leadership has become a necessity for humankind as water is to a human being. We are looking at an impending economic crisis at an unprecedented level. Therefore, in organizations that are growing, and organizations that are barely surviving – the future relies on your leaders.

[1] John H. Carruth (1942), Principles of Leadership, The Military Engineer, Vol 24, No. 206 ,pp. 594-597

[2] Roy D. Budrick, Leadership, The Military Engineer, Vol. 35, No. 211 (MAY, 1943), pp. 218-220

[3] Sanford M. Jacoby (1986), Employee Attitude Testing at Sears, Roebuck and Company, 1938-1960, The Business History Review, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Winter, 1986), pp. 602-632

[4] In his book “Influence: Science and Practice”, Robert Caldini shares the psychology of persuasion, and his first rule of influence is Reciprocation.

[5] Sebastian Kube, Clemens Puppe and Michel André Maréchal (2013), Do Wage Cuts Damage Work Morale?, Journal of the European Economic Association, Vol. 11, No. 4 (August 2013), pp. 853-870

[5] Worthy (1950) – Harvard Business Review “Study of Employee Attitudes” and “Factors Influencing Employee Morale” mentioned – ‘ If the only basis management can convieve for employee loyalty and cooperation is the pay envelope and the short work week, there can be never enough money to go around or no short enough hours to do the job’

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