You Can’t Fix Morale

Here’s a phone call I sometimes receive, usually from someone senior in executive management or the investment team behind a once promising company:

Inquirer: Hey, we need your help with something. We have a situation and we’re not sure what to do about it.

Me: Sounds intriguing. What is the situation?

Inquirer: Well, we’re having… I’m not sure what you would call it exactly, I guess a problem with morale.

Me: What would you like me to do?

Inquirer: We would like you to help us fix morale.

Me: Oh, that. I’m sorry, I can’t help you.

Inquirer: We haven’t spoken two minutes and you already know that?

Me: Yes, I’m quite sure. I certainly would like to take your money because I’m sure you are willing to pay a lot to do something about this, but I only take on projects where I can actually help someone.

Inquirer: How can you be so sure?

Me: You can’t fix morale.

Inquirer: What do you mean? Morale gets fixed all the time.

Me: Yes, exactly. Morale gets fixed because whatever is causing it to deteriorate gets fixed, but that is where you need to look, at the disease, not a symptom.

Inquirer: Are you saying we need to fix something else in our company so that maybe it can have an impact on morale?

Me: Yes, that is what I am saying. In fact, you probably need to fix your company.

Inquirer: So a contract to fix morale is not big enough for you? You want a bigger contract to fix our company? But our company is not broken.

Me: Then you probably don’t have a morale problem and don’t need any help.

Inquirer: You’re not doing yourself any favors turning this down. It’s a big project. We have a sizeable budget for it.

Me: It’s tempting, but why don’t you have another look at the situation and maybe we can talk again.

The call usually ends there and we don’t talk again. Every once in a while we do talk again and then I tend to get involved in long stretches of dialogue with team members up and down the line. We talk about a lot of things: leadership talent, product quality, business model. We talk about creativity and innovation, passion for excellence, dedication to the customer experience. One of the things we never talk about is trying to fix morale.

Let me say it again: You can’t fix morale.

Bad morale is a byproduct, most often of poor direction, sometimes of impossible goals so ridiculous no one ever feels appreciated, other times of uneven credit and compensation in times of success. There are successful companies with good and bad morale, and struggling companies with good and bad morale. Good morale is also a byproduct — you achieve it by focusing on the right things.

I view morale as a result of process and outcomes. Process involves day-to-day workplace routines that reinforce or strip away employee engagement. Outcomes involve the continuity or deadend at the culmination of a milestone, the reward or repudiation for the commitment of time, expertise, or passion. If your process is bad, morale will be bad. If your outcomes are bad, morale will be bad.

Suppose your company wildly missed earnings targets three quarters in a row. You’ve seen your second round of layoffs in less than two years. More than half of your VPs were fired and hired in the past ten months. The CEO, also rumored to be teetering, has said repeatedly everyone needs to “work smarter, not harder,” but no one is sure which product in the pipeline is going to carry the day. Employee morale as you would expect is rotten all around you. Your colleagues are irritable and nasty. Every week someone you like leaves the company for another gig.

Let’s look at some options for addressing this:

  1. The company hires a consultant to run a survey on employee satisfaction and weeks after you fill out your survey they find out what everyone knew before the survey: Morale stinks like a decaying carcass. The CEO announces Fridays will be half days, the company will be publishing a weekly newsletter celebrating its best employees, and all VPs and above will be taking classes in how to write better reviews and talk nicely to their teams. Everyone is told he or she is appreciated and reminded to work smarter, not harder.
  2. The company holds an executive offsite where all the VPs get to articulate everything that is wrong with the company. The VPs report back to their teams that the CEO agrees, there are not enough resources in the company to go around, the timelines for deliverable are insane, and the competition has an edge on the industry that is daunting. Starting today you will have realistic goals, more resources, flexible timelines, and as long as everyone is doing their best, then management will back off and be satisfied.
  3. The CEO pulls together a half-dozen of the best minds in the company to conduct an honest post-mortem of why the company’s strategy is failing. That team then strips away all the derivative efforts that are draining resources from the company’s true mission and recommits to a narrowed product strategy that capitalizes on the company’s identified competitive advantage. The CEO then directs the executive team to align the best talent in the company with key roles on the narrowed agenda and hire new talent where mediocrity is being tolerated, then communicates the new plan to the full company in verbal and written detail, not just in an inspiring kickoff speech but in regular progress updates that are candid and coherent.

You might think the answer is obvious, but sadly it is not — especially to less experienced management teams where too many influential individuals have achieved authority through battlefield promotions. Here we are talking the bedrock of directing process and refocusing outcomes. Good process takes a lifetime to learn. Steering through outcomes whether planned or unplanned requires a deft touch. There are no shortcuts. If you don’t have the energy or commitment to take apart process and outcomes one building block at a time, you have little shot at repairing morale.

I often ask people to share with me whether they have had a single good manager in their careers. You would be surprised how many say no. In fact these days it is the rare exception of people who actually rave about a boss from the past and talk about how they are putting that learning to work. The ones who are tend to have fewer morale problems on their hands. Too many leaders’ lives are filled with morale problems because they haven’t learned how to steer past them.

Now think about all those unicorns out there — you know, the 150 or so privately funded startup companies currently valued at $1B or more. Those should be some of the happiest places in the world for people to work, big idea places filled with promise and hope for future riches. Go take a random walk through those gardens on Glassdoor. You might be surprised at what you find. They have a lot of problems. When the majority of them are unable to achieve liquidity for their option holders, they will have even more. With that will come a wave of demoralization sweeping through employee workstations. How would you go about fixing that?

You can fix a product. You can’t fix a byproduct. Fix what’s wrong in your company, not the normal human emotional reaction to what’s wrong in your company.

You certainly can fix engagement. You fix engagement through authentic vision, brilliant product design, and a rallying cry around consistent execution. Fix engagement and morale fixes itself.

Align the finest talent you can identify with challenging projects that allow them to do the best work of their careers. Keep an eye on process. Celebrate outcomes and share the wealth. Be generous with people who are meaningfully contributing to company success. Morale will be swell and you’ll have bragging rights to let everyone around you know what a great environment you’ve created for the next wave of outcomes.

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Image: Dilbert.com ©Scott Adams

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Rotten Choices, Rotten Jobs

Tenure 2010 BLSMaybe I’m getting a tad older. Or maybe with a few added laugh lines I can see a tad more clearly. Here’s what I see:

Too many people leaving too many jobs much too quickly.

What might that mean?

When I look around, I see way too many folks I know pushing themselves to perspiration to land a job, then in the first few weeks discovering they don’t like it (or it doesn’t like them). They leave in a year or less, maybe two years, three becomes a stretch. Then they leave and step on the conveyor belt anew.

What’s going on here? Is it generational? Is this a millennial thing?

Afraid not. It’s an epidemic. I am seeing it across the board, people of all ages and levels of experience. We might like to believe the way of the world now is job-hopping and we should get used to it, but I would like to suggest it’s more than “internet time” that’s wasting these human cycles. I think too often we bring it on ourselves and then make excuses for it.

Perhaps all this casual turnover is a symptom of a more pernicious ill—the unstructured, undisciplined application of choice.

Rotten choices. Rotten jobs. Crappy bosses treading in goo. Crappy performances by individuals biding their time before they get caught dialing it in.

Gee, Ken, there’s a dose of optimism! So glad I stopped by the open door.

Don’t worry, the optimism is coming, down in the punchline at the end. First let’s look at why these jobs are so short-term. I’ll give you four legs of the stool (metaphor intended):

1) Mediocre Products: Seriously, how can anyone do a great job jamming a me-too knock-off? On my weekly radio spot with Barb Adams last week we talked at length about the failure of Google Plus. Imagine working that hard on a death march with all the resources of a powerful company behind you, only to release a weak knock off of your rival, Facebook. A very quick way to burn up the employee-employer relationship is to sound the rallying cry of importance, then have to explain why it was all words and little action. Solution: Think strategy before you think deployment of resources. Ask What and Why before How and When—what customer problem are you solving, and why are you the right company to solve it. Then grind!

2) Amateur Leadership: I’ve said it many times in these articles—people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. If you’ve never had a good boss, you probably will repeat the cycle and stink at it. It’s wonderful to see so much young energy driving the latest wave of startups, but as these New World startups get momentum, they take on many of the same problems as Old World companies. Battlefield promotions abound, and you can’t fake it in front of an army of grizzled veterans no matter how clever you think your quips are. Solution: Mentorship! If you never had a good boss, find one of those grizzled veterans who was a good boss and surgically attach yourself to him or her. You can do this privately or publicly, but don’t be afraid to ask innumerable questions, and whatever you may ultimately choose to do, be sure you LISTEN! Also remember that anytime you choose to have a boss you are leaving some money on the table (the value you create pays your boss’s salary), so if you are giving up income, you should be getting something for that, and it’s called LEARNING. Ask for this benefit upfront. If you’re not getting better at what you do because of your boss, you’re getting burned.

3) Hiring by SEO: Indeed I Love LinkedIn, but if the primary reason a manager makes a hire is because of the keyword overlap between what they need and what someone else has done (evidenced by lots of highlights in the overlay), start the countdown clock. This cuts both ways, company and applicant. Solution: Hire and accept a position for character and compatibility as well as competency. Every company has a culture (and if you think your company doesn’t have a culture, that’s the company culture). A hiring manager needs to Think Different as a team expands. A star individual achiever may not be a consensus player. Legendary companies begin and grow through culture, and that comes from people. And don’t forget diversity. Without it, your products are going to be mighty ordinary.

4) Job Application without Roadmap: If you the hiring manager don’t know what is going to light your fire, what makes you think the person with the offer letter has flint? You must have a notion of what you need now as well as where that relationship can evolve before you begin interviewing. A candidate also has to evaluate not just whether he or she is a fit today but where this position might lead over time. If you think of the opportunity as a relationship, you’ll know you need to leave room to let it expand. Solution: Get clear about yourself first, then start to think about soliciting or fielding offers. If you’re thinking short-term, don’t be surprised if the results are short-term. The immediate need before you is not an end in itself but a launching point. If you’re not thinking that way, the revolving door will soon be spinning.

There’s no question the employment landscape has changed significantly with the generational shift. There is now little stigma associated with short job tenure on a resume. Few pensions remain to hold people in place. Headhunters comb online profiles for middle management as well as senior positions (sometimes entry-level positions!). Self-employment and consulting are becoming increasingly viable alternatives to third-party employment. Many people now value lifestyle over career achievement and will dump a job if it underperforms their personal expectations. Yet even with all that, I hear one heartbreaking story after another about talented individuals departing gigs before they could make a lasting contribution or feel proud about their productivity. You can switch jobs all you want, but you still get one life. What do you want it to be about?

About that punchline and a scoop of optimism—try this on for size: Anyone can change the world, but few people will. You can change the world. That’s not a slogan and it’s not hyperbole. It’s the fuel of innovation, the only true gas in the tank of the companies we admire. Decide how you want to change the world, at any scale large or small, and connect that vision to an employer’s honest promise to let you have that chance. Do you think anyone could pry you out of that job with a flame-heated crowbar? Fat chance. You’ll stay where you’re wanted, and where people let you do the best work of your career. Find that, and the words “rotten” and “crappy” will be replaced by more upbeat adjectives than exist in any vocabulary.

Stop whining. Start growing. Stop offering and accepting dead-end gigs you already know are terminal. Our time is precious, and you’re running out of it. Change the world.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.