27 Feb

Marinating on Maintaining Morale

At the CAPSA conference a few weeks ago I was asked a question about who within the organization is responsible for maintaining morale?

My answer?

“It’s complicated, next question.” HA!

Though my response above was offered jokingly, my response was also very serious, and we spent some time exploring the many facets of morale and who contributes to morale and how. Let’s break down “who” owns the responsibility of maintaining morale now that I’ve marinated on in a bit more. I’ll share some through on three groups within organizations and “how” and “what” they can message regarding morale. The three groups: Top-Down, Middle-to-Middle, and Bottom-Up

TOP-DOWNLeaders and executives must celebrate the infrequent wins, reiterate the global view of progress and provide clarity on the end-goal and the process. As you move through change, disruption or a major new initiative celebrating a good process might you can celebrate in the short-term sometimes as the outcomes or outputs of the process might be far out on the horizon. Top-Down approaches need to share the global landscape of how things are improving or will become dramatically better in a scale of time that Bottom-Up viewers often can’t see when their nose down to the grind stone of day-to-day tasks.

Hold Firm To: “We are doing the right things today to reach the desired future state (or avoid a future of calamity!) of tomorrow.” That desired future state might be a year or two away and holding firm to long-term goals is where executives must put their energy. Even if minor adaptation is expected and often required the end-goal should be firmly established and communicated with consistency, clarity and frequency. Over-communication being way better than under-communication.

Make Sure To: Show employees with their heads down in the day-to-day Bottum-Up roles how their efforts fit into the global vision and process. Be sure to know where the fit is. Show empathy for the pain in the present and the grit to hold-firm to the vision. Also, set celebratory milestones and go BIG when you’ve hit the end-goal. Don’t just move on to the next project.

MIDDLE-TO-MIDDLE – Get clarity from the TOP-DOWN team so you can commit firmly to the vision. Celebrate the wins that are some combination of smaller and regular wins from sharing up (see below), sharing down bigger, less-frequent wins and sharing side-to-side amongst your colleagues.

Hold Firm To: Supporting your people through the challenges linked to morale that you can influence like work-life balance, employee growth, fairness, inclusivity and culture. Shut down the naysayers! The naysayers cannot control the message especially when linked to change – some people just hate change. Build up the yay-sayers (I made a new word!) who understand the desired future state and who can celebrate the wins and drown out the Dougie and Debbie Downers.  

Make Sure To: Ferret out the wins from your colleagues in the middle and also your front-line teams. Make sure you celebrate the wins (big and small) frequently. There are plenty of reasons work is understandably hard. Hard work also has the opportunity to be fulfilling work connected to purpose and values. Hard work is not the same as toxic culture and impossible workloads. Be sure you know the difference. Try this survey if you’re not sure: LINK

BOTTOM-UPCelebrate the smaller, more regular wins and share them up to be messaged more broadly. Celebrate employee awards, completing projects, client success stories. Honor that progress often moves like cold molasses and the vision from the top and changes being made at the top will not always move as fast as you like – often because it just can’t. Also, honor that you don’t know what you don’t know and start from a place of trusting the best intentions of those above you.

Hold Firm To:

Honor that work is hard. And it’s ok. Especially in probation where your success is measured in the long-term, complex and complicated hard-to-measure metrics of lives changed, generational improvements for a family and reducing recidivism rates. These metrics can’t always be measured positively in the short-term. Stay connected to your purpose in the work you do!

Make Sure To:

Celebrate those sticky, non-linear successes that have come from finding the solution amidst other failed attempts. These “sticky” moments can be an organizational reorganization, implementing new technologies, or a new program having an impact. Celebrate also when a program is now richer and more effective because you took the time to prove the program worked (or initially didn’t work and was restructured) using evidenced-based evaluations.


#1. One of the things that I did not share about Denmark is that they have an incredible policy for people going on unemployment. In Denmark, if the job you are in doesn’t work, because of the actual job itself or the people you work with are the wrong fit you can move on. Up-skilling through education or finding another workplace takes time and doing that without the financial worries is liberating. In the U.S. we don’t offer this same motility and in probation or government the pensions or retirement packages inhibit movement as well. Whatever the reason that people don’t impacts our context because we can lack experience with working in different team cultures. Sometimes we can complain idly about things that really, we should be celebrating because if I workplace is pretty darn good – it’s good enough – even while we work to improve the overall conditions.

#2. For better or for worse, I’ve worked in many different workplaces over time and so I have context from the nonprofit, public sector and the private sector.  Some leaders and teams I’ve worked under and alongside I would have run through brick wall for…and some….well…I would have scaled a brick wall with barbed wire at the time to get away from situation.

If you’re curious about where your morale is leaning and want to make some of the hard parts of work easier try this organizational climate survey and explore what actions can be taken to improve morale. Here’s the link again.

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