by Simone Kaplan

What to Do When Morale Is Low

May 01, 200215 mins
IT Leadership

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.

Look, Listen, Take Nothing for Granted

Morale is like the weather on the plains?it can change drastically in the space of a minute. But on the plains, you can see a storm coming; the warning signs of bad morale are more subtle and difficult to detect. Some old signals, such as increased turnover and frequent absences, aren’t as reliable now as they once were. People are less likely to leave their position in the middle of a recession, when jobs are hard to find, and since Sept. 11 some companies have discovered that turnover has decreased as employees yearn for stability and security in their life.

Still, being able to identify a morale problem begins by being able to recognize situations that can bring people down, says Ben Holder.

As vice president and CIO of Unifi, a Greensboro, N.C.-based textiles manufacturer, Holder makes it a point to meet with his staff on a daily basis to discuss all aspects of IT and its place in the company. He keeps his ears open for the red flags that could signal trouble.

“The biggest mistake you can make is to ignore the existence of a problem or rationalize it away,” he says. “People shouldn’t be constantly uncommunicative. If they get negative in conversations, you have to perk up your ears. Look at their faces. Are they laughing or smiling at all around the office? Are they quiet in meetings? If behavior and attitudes have changed, red lights should start flashing in your mind.”

Even if you have a large staff?Holder has 60 people in his department?”you have to make an effort to get to know them, know their spouses, know what’s going on in their lives,” he says. “I’ve told them all about my family because I care about them, and they should know that. I want them to care about me as well because I need a lot from them, and I need them to want to give that kind of effort.”

Having daily contact with staff is essential for maintaining morale, says Theresa Welbourne, associate professor of organization behavior and human resource management at the University of Michigan business school in Ann Arbor, Mich. “No organization is good at being proactive when it comes to morale,” Welbourne says. “Most companies are reactive. CIOs will notice when productivity is down, but if you are just starting to notice, that means productivity has been on the way down for six months already.”

A CIO’s first line of defense when it comes to low morale is to listen closely, she explains. The clues lie in what employees are not saying.

“Look at the level of energy,” she says. “Is your staff engaged and participating in projects and meetings, or are they withdrawn and lethargic? If people are no longer contributing, particularly if they used to speak up often, that’s a sign. If people are talking but are being pessimistic, that’s very telling. When things are good, IT workers feel like they can do anything. But when morale is down, they tend to feel like even one project is too much to get done. The sense of urgency on projects diminishes.”

Walk the corridors often, and stand at the door before a meeting starts and listen to what people say as they come in, she says. You may think your employees feel comfortable discussing personal or professional issues that are affecting their state of mind, but you’re probably wrong.

“You might have an open culture, but people learn from previous jobs to keep their mouths shut,” she says. “Employees try to hide their feelings because they are afraid of a punitive backlash if they say anything.”

The best way to counteract that kind of wariness is to talk to your staff in a consistent, honest manner.

Honesty Is (Surprise!) the Best Policy

The most important tool for recognizing and combating bad morale is communication. Even if your company is going down the tubes and the future looks grim, tell your staff what’s really going on, says Joseph Osbourne, CIO and executive vice president of Tech Data, an IT products and logistics management company based in Clearwater, Fla.

“The biggest mistake is to withdraw and keep information to yourself,” Osbourne says. “There’s nothing more miserable than when a CIO holes up in his office and assesses a situation behind closed doors and doesn’t share information with the staff. It’s insulting to your staff’s intelligence, and it’s very destructive in terms of morale.”

Being up front is important, as is honesty. “You don’t want to say everything is rosy and then come back in a week and say the company is not going to make it,” Osbourne says.

CIOs sometimes keep information to themselves because they don’t want to worry their employees, but even though they mean well, hiding information will only spark anger and distrust, says Mercer’s Van De Voort.

“Tell them what’s going on, and don’t hold back because you think it will worry or upset them,” he says. “If you stay silent, you won’t be protecting them. In fact, you’ll be leaving them vulnerable, and that will only make the situation worse.”

Before CIO Bill Morrison came to Canton, Mass.-based high-end audio retailer Tweeter Home Entertainment last year, he was CIO at Bradlee’s, a now-defunct, low-cost retail chain. As Bradlee’s spiraled into bankruptcy, Morrison found that constant, honest communication was vital to keep his staff’s spirits high.

“When the company is in rough shape, the CIO role is more about leadership than technology,” Morrison says. “You have to talk to your staff every day and tell them everything you know, even if the information is changing on a daily basis. Tell them that you’ll update them as it comes, but that it could change at any minute. Even if you don’t have an answer for them, tell them that you don’t know. That helps them know you’re being honest, even though it’s not an easy situation. Be up front about layoffs and other reductions in staff. Everyone knows about layoffs because it’s in the paper every day. You have to address it honestly with your staff because they’re concerned. Try to look ahead so there are no surprises for them.”

As a leader, even if your own morale is down, you have to keep your head up. When morale is bad, it’s more vital than ever that the CIO be a fount of energy and guidance, even if it’s just by keeping a smile on your face, he says.

“This is where your leadership skills come into play,” says Morrison. “Everything that you do or say or feel is projected to your staff, and even the slightest negativity will come across. And your staff needs that leadership. When you’re the CIO, they think you know everything.”

Building morale through improved communication means more than smiling and keeping an open door, however. It means developing trust between you and your employees, and that kind of connection is made by opening up about yourself, both personally and professionally, says Peggy Klaus, a communications consultant based in San Francisco and adjunct professor at the Wharton School of Business’s executive MBA program.

“Tell your employees about your leadership style, your philosophy on work and life, the environment you want to create with them, your vision and how you plan to achieve it,” Klaus says. “Tell them how you want them to communicate with you, and tell them what your foibles are. Let them see you as you are. Let them know you’ve been through rough times before and how you plan to get through it this time. Thank them for staying with you through this. Solicit their concerns and offer your help in getting through obstacles. Get specific about how you intend to make the situation better if you can, and how you’ll support them.”

One of the most powerful actions a CIO can take is to involve the staff in addressing a morale problem, Klaus suggests. Hold a series of meetings with the goal of gathering suggestions for fixing morale. At each meeting, update your employees on what’s being done and gather feedback on the process as it moves forward.

“By involving your staff, you give them some power over the situation, instead of them feeling powerless,” she says. “It will make them feel like part of the solution, instead of part of the problem. By soliciting their advice, you demonstrate a level of respect and trust that they need to see.”

Don’t Take Away Their Training

One of the most effective ways of boosting IT morale and solidifying a sense of commitment between you and your staff is to shore up your professional development and training program. Training is especially important during down times when you’re asking your staff to do more and, in some cases, take over unfamiliar jobs.

“If you shut down your training program, you’ll find that a morale problem develops very quickly,” says Tweeter’s Morrison. “Training drives IT people.”

Even if your budget is tight, Morrison says, you can find economical ways to fund training. Options include online learning courses and self-teaching packages. Reimburse your staff for IT textbooks or create a library of books they can use.

“By maintaining the training program, you let your staff know that you’re committed to helping them stay current,” says Mercer’s Van De Voort. “Training indicates an ongoing dedication to employees, and taking it away is one of the worst things you can do.”

No Cheap Tricks

Monte Ford, CIO of American Airlines in Fort Worth, Texas, has tackled more serious threats to the morale of his organization during his 14 months on the job than most CIOs expect to deal with in an entire career. In April 2001, Ford guided his organization though a merger with TWA in the largest airline integration in history. Last fall, the sale of Sabre to EDS meant that American Airlines lost almost 4,200 longtime contract employees. And after Sept. 11, Ford had to help his staff support the airline’s IT needs as they and the company were rocked by grief and loss.

Through each challenge, Ford kept one idea in mind: The people on his staff are his single most valuable asset. To succeed as a leader and to keep his people’s spirits up, he learned to adjust the way he viewed his employees.

“You have to treat your staff as though they’re volunteers, not paid workers,” Ford explains. “You have to do something every day that will make them want to come to work. IT people are smart; if you treat them badly, particularly during tough times, they’ll remember. If you treat them well, they’ll be loyal and stick around. If not, they’ll leave for a better place as soon as they can.”

As part of his philosophy, Ford has instituted a system of rewards and recognition. If someone has worked all weekend to finish a project or has done something good for the department, Ford personally applauds them. He and his managers also praise the staff on an individual and team basis once a week during staff meetings.

“Appreciate your staff as much and as often as possible,” says the Wharton School’s Klaus. “No matter how long they’ve been at the company, treat them like they’re the best, the hottest stars in the place. Do whatever you can, even in small ways, through e-mails and meetings and one-on-ones, through small gifts or extra time off, to let them know you value them and the work they do.”

For such efforts to be effective, they have to be genuine. While a keg party on Fridays or meetings with free lunches may seem like a quick way to make people feel appreciated and valued, if such activities don’t fit into your IT culture, they can backfire, says Unifi’s Holder.

“People don’t stay for cheap tricks,” he says. “They stay if the environment is supportive and challenging, the business is functional and there are positive working relationships.”

The Morale of the Story

Bad morale is a very real, very serious problem that demands good leadership. The first step is to acknowledge the existence of a morale problem. If you make the effort to examine your management and communication skills and address a need for improvement, morale will go up and you’ll find yourself with a loyal, resilient staff that won’t bolt for the hills once the economy improves.