High expectations… low staff morale


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

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A car pulls up at the gates of an organisation. The engine is still running, its door opens, an employee gets in and immediately starts a conversation with the driver.

“Damn, I can't stand that place.”

There is silence.

“If I had another option I would've left that job already.”

The driver finally responds, “Honey, I know it's difficult, but you know you can't quit that job right now. That's what gets the bills paid.”

Are you the head of an organisation? Do you have employees who report to work primarily because they have bills to pay? If so, that is a sign of low staff morale in the workplace. If several employees feel that way, then it is vital that you investigate the contributory factor(s). This process should not exclude leadership introspection.

Staff morale

Staff morale is “the reflection of the emotions, attitude, job satisfaction, and the overall outlook of employees while they are in the work environment”. Literature suggest that it is such a powerful factor in the workplace that when it is high it “can drive an organisation forward”, but contrastingly, when it is low it “can lead to employee discontent, poor job performance, and absenteeism” (Ewton, 2007).

Clearly, maintaining happier employees attests to a positive work environment in which they continuously refuel that inner drive and motivation to keep going. They commit their best efforts and talents to achieving the organisation's goals because they know their contribution is valuable. They are loyal and all that they expect in return is a sense of recognition and appreciation.

However, critical to note, is that research suggests staff morale is the product of the working environment and not the other way around. In other words, the work environment sets the tone for the type of employee morale that will be manifested.

Money matters

Surprisingly, while money is the primary motive of employment, it should never be perceived as something that fosters happiness in the workplace nor job satisfaction. In fact, it has no positive effect on staff morale. Glassdoor Economic Research (2017) found that “across all income levels, the top predictor of workplace satisfaction is not pay: It is the culture and values of the organisation, followed closely by the quality of senior leadership and the career opportunities at the company”.

Detecting low staff morale

Low staff morale stems from several reasons. A senior staff reporter of the Huffington Post identified some which are attributed to management. These include:

• instilling fear in employees;

• never offering praise;

• failing to honour promises such as rewards and incentives to workers;

• setting impossible goals;

• publicly reprimanding employees;

• disregarding their ideas and initiatives; and

• doing just about anything that threatens their livelihood.

Regrettably, low staff morale impacts the same areas of the organisation just as high morale does. Notwithstanding, clear signs of low staff morale are unco-operative behaviours, reduced personal communication and initiatives, increased rates of absenteeism or tardiness, increased turnover, and, in general, poor performance and attitude to work-related issues (Demers, 2015).

Leadership expert Robert Sutton, highlighting the relationship between leadership and staff morale, proffered that employees suffered both physically and mentally when their supervisors were abusive, and this resulted in reduced productivity and physical health problems. He also emphasised that, “Negative interactions had a five-fold stronger effect on mood than positive interactions.”

Rebuilding staff morale

Among the many ways that staff morale can be boosted, Demers suggests “letting your employees know that their voices are heard and respected”. They should be allowed to express their opinions about the roles they play on the team and about any new projects on which their company is embarking.

Other strategies to boost staff morale include: changing up the daily work routine and making time for fun in the workplace. Demers cautioned that work and fun ought not to be viewed as mutually exclusive terms. In short, rebuilding staff morale must include the recognition of employees, establishing open lines of communication, being respectful to employees, and demonstrating a genuine concern for their welfare.


A woman recently went to a function in recognition of employees. When asked how it went, she stated that she merely ate the meal and waited for it to come to its official end. When asked why, she responded, “I felt jaded,” adding, “If I'm made to feel worthless and unappreciated all year round, why should anyone expect me to suddenly feel appreciated today?”

Sometimes, management's recognition of employees is so infrequent that by the time their contribution to the organisation is actually acknowledged their esprit de corps is broken.

Like any other factor of production, managers must be mindful that preservation and care of their human capital is crucial. In fact, employees are inarguably the most significant factor of production. So, after all the other resources are accounted for and serviced, the employees also require some individualised attention — respect, recognition, supportive leadership, an environment of trust and emotional intelligence, and an unwavering sense of appreciation and value.

It should never appear to be solely about achieving goals and meeting deadlines. Somewhere amidst the busy work schedule a voice of reassurance must be heard saying, “Thank you for your contribution to our organisation.”

High expectations

Working towards the goals of the organisation can lead to employee burnout, thus psychologists state that time for fun should be an indispensible part of the work routine. The time and place must be considered based on the type of working environment; however, there must be periodic activities for employee rejuvenation. But whether it's playing games or having a social, any efforts at boosting staff morale must include an understanding of what uplifts them.

Once that is ascertained, the next step for managers is deciphering how to maintain it. Building staff morale must be continuous. It must be a component of organisational plans decided with the collaborative efforts of those for whom it is intended. As Granny used to say “encouragement sweetens labour”.

A car pulls up at the gates of an organisation. The engine is still running, its door opens, an employee leans in through the window and immediately starts a conversation with the driver.

“Babe, I tried calling you several times to ask you not to come so soon… we're playing dominoes.”

With a little chuckle, the driver responds, “Okay, Honey. Have fun.”

Is this too high an expectation to be true? If so, this is a sign that low staff morale might exist in your organisation.

Verona Antoine-Smith is a teacher in a public secondary school. She holds a master's degree in educational administration. Send comments to the Observer or to

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