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.


Image: ©Scott Adams


Bird by Bird

And now for something from the other side of the brain… I want to share with you a book I read this summer.  It was introduced to me by my good friend and classmate, Will Schwalbe, who among other things was Editor-in-Chief at Disney’s Hyperion books and has since founded

The book is called Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  It’s by Anne Lamott.  It was originally published in 1994.  I read it for the Instructions on Writing.  I’m sharing it for the Instructions on Life.

Lamott’s guidance was extremely helpful to me as a creative inspiration, but that is precisely when I realized the entire book can be read as a linked set of metaphors.  Even if you don’t have the least bit of interest in creative writing, I would still recommend this book.  Let’s start with the basic conceit, lifted from the back cover, quoting the author:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write,  [It] was due the next day.  We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.  Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.’

Okay, if you don’t have a little goofy sentimentality in your outlook you can link off now and ignore the rest of this blog post, because that passage reflects the spirit of Lamott’s clear observations and confidence, encouragement without pretension, honesty and uplifting outlook.  It worked for me.

Anne Lamott is not a cheerleader, more like the Burgess Meredith with the water bottle and bucket in Rocky’s corner between rounds — I’m also guessing she wouldn’t wilt if she had to slash your eye open if like Rocky it got sealed shut.  She knows you are going to get hit hard, and she reminds you that you know it too.  She tells you not to get distracted by that which doesn’t matter to the process of writing.  Much of this she learned from her father, who was also a career writer.  He taught her it was the doing that mattered, not the surrounding mechanical functions that seem like they matter.

bird by bird 2What struck me repeatedly in Lamott’s mini-lessons was her deep understanding of process — that output of a work is not so much the full work itself, but an assembly of building blocks, one at a time, each a commitment, and only in totality something more.  She does not advocate bonehead process or ridiculous formulaic mandate — this is not a how-to manual — she just wants us to care about what we are doing and accomplish it in a series of heartfelt steps.  There are no shortcuts, it’s a little more each day, a continuum that adds up to a satisfying and cohesive whole.  This is not breakthrough thinking, but it’s a lesson we need to learn over and over, and it’s not just about writing.  Creative process is the heart of innovation.   Think of all the elements that make the iPad great.  If all the elements weren’t great, it would not be great.  Same with a restaurant menu and wine list.  Same with an office skyscraper or memorial monument.  Same with a short story, same with a novel.  Summary impression rests in the details, all the many tiny parts or moments — and all those details require hard thought and careful design.

Lamott is smart about this, she tells you that getting it right is not going to happen out of the gate and unnerving strides at perfection can be your worst enemy.  She has an excellent descriptor for the real quality of the first drafts to which we aspire.  I’ll let you discover that on your own so the word does not get scraped here.  Her point is, just get the words out, work on making them better later, a layer at a time.

She also allows us not to obsess unnecessarily with locking the full road map before we explore, because again that can impede our work.  How far do we need to see ahead?  “About two or three feet ahead of you” is plenty she tell us, quoting E.L. Doctorow: “..writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”  She says this is “right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.”  I tend to agree.

There is tremendous empathy in Lamott’s world view, she offers a sense of shared experience that is reinforcing and comforting.  Lamott talks about the imaginary radio station playing in your head — another colorful descriptor I will let you discover — that tells us over and over again why we can’t do something, why the work we are doing is neither good nor worth doing.  Learning to turn off that radio is our key to moving forward, we all hear it from time to time, but when it becomes perpetual, that is when our ability to create interesting work stops completely.

Lamott is just so honest and clear about all the factors that stop us from moving forward because she not only has experienced them, she continues to experience them.  She does not position herself as a guru or weekend seminar success evangelist, but simply as someone who can reflect on problems of creativity because she deals with problems of creativity endlessly in her own life.  She is even more honest in telling us that no one can make these problems go away once and for all, certainly not with any form of temporal success.  All we can do is know that these obstructions will always be there, so we must embrace confronting them.  Sometimes it really is good to know that none of us are experiencing roadblocks on our own, the fact that someone like Lamott tells you she is experiencing what you are experiencing is precisely the empathy that builds strength and resistance because the experiences are shared, bad and good.  Her humility is reinforcing and refreshing and uncompromisingly inspiring.

“Bird by Bird” is not a long book, it can be read if you wish initially in a single sitting, but it is the kind of book you will find yourself coming back to for this chapter or that, this phrase or that.  Lamott writes with good humor, even when she tackles very difficult and personal matters of her own life and those around her.  The more I think about her framework, the more I am convinced it is much more broadly applicable then perhaps she even considered.  I see the guidance as useful in company life, in financial life, in family life, in political life, and in government life.  All of these require effective process to get them right, there are no shortcuts, and the rewards can be the smallest where the challenges are the greatest.  That does not mean the rewards aren’t meaningful, but it is the context of those rewards and the expectations that one sets for success that truly inform us when we are steering toward a final draft.

How do you get from idea in your head to finished manuscript?  The same way you build a company.  The same way elegant software libraries become paradigm defining customer experiences.   The same way we fix the economy and replace our government leaders with people who want to work on behalf of the people instead of themselves.  Process.  Commitment.  Focus.  Humility.  Honesty.  Bird by bird by bird by bird…