What to Do When Morale Is Low

Even in the best of times, morale is a delicate, unpredictable thing. Will one employee sulk when another receives a promotion? Will a canceled project throw a team into a tailspin of recrimination and apathy? Will a switch from lobster bisque to pea soup in the company cafeteria cost you your best worker? Threading your way through these problems can be like negotiating a minefield. At any moment, something can blow up in your face and send productivity tumbling even as your employees commence to mumbling and grumbling.

Of course, these are not the best of times.

It’s no secret that morale is an omnipresent issue right now. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, last year companies laid off almost 1.7 million workers, up 5 percent from the year before, and filed 41,000 bankruptcy claims, up 13 percent from the previous year. Those cuts have forced the survivors, including those in IT, to shoulder more responsibilities even as their salaries and benefits fall under the cost-cutting ax.

Bad morale is insidious. Bad morale skulks, it lurks, it simmers just beneath the conversation at the watercooler. But if you keep your eyes and ears open, you’ll know when it’s there.

It’s not the Economy; It’s You

Morale is more than a people issue; it’s a business issue. Low morale increases turnover, and turnover (when unplanned) is bad for managers and their reputation, department and efficiency?and, of course, the bottom line. Low morale also causes declines in productivity and quality. No figures exist to quantify those declines, says Anne Reustle, leader of the work-life consulting group at William M. Mercer in Philadelphia, but the correlation between morale and business functioning is self-evident.

"Stress and illness caused by excessive demands in work and personal life can seriously reduce a worker’s productivity and have a direct impact on the bottom line," Reustle asserts.

Those demands are magnified in IT departments, where maintaining morale can be singularly challenging.

"Right now, IT’s workload is increasing because of layoffs, but at the same time their energy is ebbing and they feel overloaded and confused," says Dennis LaRosee, senior vice president of Praendex, a Wellesley, Mass.-based executive training and management consultancy. "IT leaders and workers tend to be introspective and technical in nature. They feel unappreciated because no one sees the creative effort and energy that goes into writing an application or completing a project." And when IT staffers do receive feedback, LaRosee points out, it’s usually negative.

Before the problem of morale can be tackled, a couple of ground rules need to be understood. There are no easy fixes or blanket solutions. Morale isn’t like a buggy software program?there are no service packs or patches. It can’t be fixed in one day or one week, and it won’t be solved by pizza parties, free mugs, or wacky Hawaiian shirt day.

What you need to understand about morale is this: The mood of your employees can be brought down by external factors, such as the state of the economy, but it is your leadership skills?or lack thereof?that will tip the morale scales one way or the other. In tough times such as these, the people you are responsible for are looking for support, leadership and reassurance. If you ignore or underestimate that need, you’ll have a morale problem on your hands. "Lack of communication and bad management, or lack of confidence in management, are the two biggest causes of low morale," says Rick Chapman, CIO and chief administrative officer at Kindred Healthcare in Louisville, Ky. "It doesn’t matter what the economy is like."

The first step toward fixing bad morale is acknowledging that the problem exists. The second step is realizing that it’s your responsibility to make it better. While morale may seem like the domain of HR, that’s a cop-out, says David Van De Voort, a principal consultant and leader of the IT workforce effectiveness group at Mercer.

"The CIO is the head of a community, a family of professionals," he says. "No competent CIO would leave morale for HR to deal with. The CIO has to be the one who sets the tone and defines the IT culture in any organization."

While CIOs should not relegate responsibility for morale to HR, you can and should lean on HR for help. Having an HR representative participate in meetings can help make employees feel cared for by the company. The HR rep is also another person an employee can talk to. No matter how open your culture, employees aren’t always comfortable talking to the CIO, and that means they may not tell the whole truth about how they feel if they do talk to you.

There are, however, actions you can and must take to deal with and reverse a bad morale situation, including placing special emphasis on management basics such as communication, leadership and special programs for employees: training, rewards and recognition. Here are steps tailored for an IT staff that you can take toward recognizing and rehabilitating low morale.

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