Legal Blog

Motivating Your Workforce, Part I: How Does Morale Get so Low?

For about four years between college and law school, I worked for a company that handed out laminated cards inscribed with its “Company Cheer.”  We were told that we could receive a $5 spot bonus if we were able to pull the card from our wallet upon request from a corporate executive.  And, at the bi-annual staff meetings, the company required us to pull out these cards, stand up from our chairs, and sing the “Company Cheer” with great enthusiasm.  Admittedly, my co-worker friend and I sang at the top our lungs in mockery of the whole thing. Such a shallow corporate motivational exercise often backfires.  When employers speak down to employees or ask them to engage in cheers akin to what my kindergartener learns in class, employees naturally feel disrespected rather than empowered, alienated rather than united.  In fact, it’s a surefire way to decrease morale and ensure the employee will start looking around for a job where they’re treated like a professional adult. Most demotivating factors in the workplace are not as obvious as my example above. Employee morale can plunge for months or years before its causes—and effects—make themselves known.

Does Your Workplace Have a Motivation Problem?

Robert Reich, the former U.S. Secretary of Labor, developed a “Pronoun Test” to determine a company’s overall employee morale. When Reich visited a workplace, he would ask its employees a few basic questions about the business, then pay careful attention to their answers. If respondents referred to the company as “we,” Reich knew they were engaged in their jobs. On the other hand, those who used “they” had distanced themselves from their work and the people around them.  Reich’s simple assessment reveals one of motivation’s core components: Connection.  People are motivated when they feel an intrinsic association not only to their work, but with their colleagues and the environment around them. Dissatisfaction with one’s career choice also occurs when work obligations draw employees away from what they consider important.  Unfortunately, this is especially common for top-performing employees.  Anyone who has spent time in a competitive, adversarial, and stress-filled position can attest that long work hours result in personal sacrifices.  High achievers tend to give up personal relationships to achieve business goals.  For example, you probably know extremely successful executives on their second or third marriages.  These high achievers may also start to disassociate their feelings from their work, loosen their morals, and lose their awareness of fairness and sensitivity. What Are the Common Culprits? Not all demotivators are intrinsic. Many of the most common culprits originate in workplace policies.  Don’t get me wrong: Every functioning workplace needs employee policies, but supervisors and HR managers should be careful not to place the rules above employee well-being.  Otherwise, employees will lose their internal principles and rely instead on a checklist for ethical guidance.  Members of a healthy workplace do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not to merely check a box confirming they have “done the right thing” in order to avoid punishment.  One example of this is the federal government’s requirement that contractors have an affirmative action plan. What are some of the other reasons morale becomes low?

  • Unnecessary meetings
  • Policies applied unfairly
  • Employees penalized for not meeting unattainable goals
  • Treating employees like children
  • Making rules for the many because of the actions of a few
  • Squashing initiative and ideas
  • Workplace gossip

I recommend Susan Heathfield’s article “Top 10 Ways to Destroy Motivation at Work” for more on these common culprits.

How Important Is Compensation?

Surprisingly, money is not the most significant motivating factor for most employees; however, it is important.  Beyond providing a living wage, compensation tells an employee how much the company values her work. But money can also motivate for the wrong reasons. The last thing many managers want is an employee who only shows up for a paycheck and is not investigated in the work she’s doing. Companies should avoid motivation problems and disputes by offering employees a fair wage from the get-go.  In fact, pay a little bit more than your competitors—five thousand dollars spread out over a year is worth retaining a valuable employee.



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