The secrets of building morale

I used to work for a big corporation. (Now I work for a small corporation, a corporation of one.)

Every so often, Management at the big corporation would notice that there was a little problem in the area of morale: people leaving in droves, few applicants, failing projects, complaints to HR.

In response to these events, management would launch a program to repair morale.

When the company was flush, we’d get pep talks, certificates, and silly contests to find ways to recognize employees.

When times were hard, we’d get stern lectures telling us we should be grateful to be employed and we’d better buck up (and oh, BTW, the training budget has been eliminated and we’re getting rid of the deadwood.)

None of these management actions had the desired effect on morale. The pep talks and contests contributed to general cynicism. The lectures drove the most employable people out the door.

(So surprising I left!)

How can managers build morale?

Keep workload reasonable. Don’t ask people to carry 10 pounds of rock in a 5 pound bucket. Knowing you won’t meet the deadline from the get-go is not motivating.

Set a sustainable pace. A 40 hour week will do wonders for morale. Enforced overtime will not. People how are constantly overworked are not happy campers, nor are they effective.

Avoid multi-tasking. Assigning people to work on several projects at once creates the illusion of progress. In fact, multi-tasking slows down progress. Most people are motivated by a sense of accomplishment — actually finishing something. Multi-tasking works against a sense of accomplishment.

Create a vision for the company or product. People want to know that they are working on something worthwhile.

Set clear goals. People will pull in the same direction when they know what that direction is. Muddy goals make it hard for people to focus their efforts and lead to poor morale.

Set clear priorities. Shifting priorities under cut morale. People don’t like to throw away something they’ve been working hard on. And switching priorities can have the same effect as multi-tasking — nothing reaches completion. Change priorities often enough, and people will view the newest priority as “flavor of the day.”

Remove obstacles. Find out what’s getting in the way and work to remove the impediment. When people see their managers are making it easier for them to work, morale goes up.

Don’t over specify. Give people the goal, set them in the right direction and let them figure out how to get there. They’ll come up with a surprising number of creative ways to get there.

Deal with the un-jellers and net-negative performers. It’s hard enough to build software without someone actively working against the goal. Its management’s job to field the best team possible. Sometimes that means moving someone off the team. Never underestimate the impact an unjeller will have on the team.

Pep talks, contests and hokey certificates won’t build morale. Effective management will.