Building Morale When Times Are Bad
Catching up on some blogs published in December, I came across one identified by HBR Online as one of their best for 2007, namely Building Morale When Times Are Bad by John Coyne. With a focus on the US economy, Coyne forecasts the biggest leadership challenge of 2008 being retaining and motivating the best people in the midst of layoffs and reductions.
His point that "good morale does not require people to be happy" is well worth pondering. In fact, walking right up to the distinction between good morale and happiness could lead to some sound policy choices. Wordreference.com defines morale as
the spirit of a group that makes the members want the group to succeedand
a state of individual psychological well-being based upon a sense of confidence and usefulness and purposeInteresting words to ponder in light of reductions. Adversity can increase the spirit of a group, when there's a direction and desire to succeed. So when faced with business adversity, what can the leader do to work on such things as "spirit of the group", "want to succeed", "sense of confidence, usefulness and purpose"? Involve people, not in commiserating or worrying, but in defining real solutions to the problems. Make sure everyone is clear on the role that they have in delivering the business strategy. Give them, as best you can a sense of confidence in the mission.
Coyne makes an excellent point that you refute concerns about the possibility of future promotions. Even if there are fewer positions to vie for, there are fewer people vying for those positions - the odds haven't changed much.
We might quibble with Coyne about helping people to see the truth of "the misery will be temporary" and "tomorrow will be brighter." Far too many people in US industry have lived through cut, after cut, after cut. Meanwhile senior leaders cash ludicrously large paychecks and the average earner's paycheck doesn't get much brighter.
Perhaps if the truth is that the work contributes to making people's lives better AND people's opinions are valued AND it's temporary, then it's incumbent on the managers to focus on those messages. No, no one is happy when there's an economic slowdown in a business, cutbacks and reductions, but yes, there can be a team spirit if there is a clear, vibrant and true mission to the business.