Running a High Morale Team in a Low Morale Organization

Teams can have high morale even if the organization doesn't

You can’t change the organization easily, even if you are the person at the tippity top. But you absolutely can have a big impact to those around you.

Probably more than you realize.

I know that might seem a bit optimistic. You might be thinking about how limited you are by the organization at large.

There’s not much you can do if the organization doesn’t have great career paths, is skimpy on raises and promotions, and suffers from poor leadership at the top.

But it turns out that you actually have lots of tools at your disposal.

Because you actually have access to many things that can more directly impact the day-to-day experience of those around you.

Just as a bad boss can ruin someone’s experience at a stellar organization, a good boss can make all the difference in an organization that is lacking in some important broad categories like culture and morale.

It starts with you.

First, see the power that you have

Running a High Morale Team in a Low Morale Organization

If you really want to have an impact on your team’s morale, you will need to improve your own attitude.

You can’t be the cheerleader if you don’t believe in the cause.

And maybe you have lost faith in the bigger cause. You might be a little bummed out about certain things happening broadly in the organization.

But that doesn’t meant that you can’t get fired up about a different mission. One that aligns with the organization but where you can have a much more direct impact.

You, and you alone, can have a profound impact on those around you. Your staff, your peers, your customers.

If you let your morale slip, you are inevitably going to let them down. If you boost your attitude, you are going to make things better for them. (Selfishly, this makes things better for you at the same time.)

The way this works is to shift your focus away from things that are beyond your control like organizational policies, top-level decisions, and market forces.

And to put more effort into thing that are within your control, like your team’s culture, interpersonal relationships, and localized goals and approaches.

By reframing your personal mission to be more focused on making work life and productivity better for those in your sphere, you can become more energized and excited about the impact you can have.

And you will start to notice more of the things that you can do to make things better.

Next, realize what causes low morale

To get a grip on the things that will most improve morale in your area, it helps to have a clear understanding of what causes low morale in the first place.

Several factors consistently rise to the top of research in this area:

  1. Poor leadership
  2. Distrust of management
  3. Poor interpersonal relations
  4. Inflexible working conditions
  5. Unclear expectations
  6. Lack of opportunity for personal growth

At first glance, it may not be apparent how much influence you can have over these things.

Let’s take a closer look.

Poor leadership

Leadership happens at all levels, from the top of the organization down to the personal leadership of every individual within it.

You are a leader. Maybe not the leader of everything but you are the leader of many things.

What are those things?

Maybe you can set priorities. Or determine what the approach should be. Perhaps you can shape what “done” looks like. Probably you can approve certain things.

Give some thought to what leadership means, exactly, at your level.

Distrust of management

Trust is personal at your level. While some may be skeptical of what drives management at the top, you can let them know what drives you as a manager.

While you need to manage in line with those above you, you can be open about your personal approach.

Are you being honest and direct with your folks? Do you let them know what excites and energizes you? What concerns you? What you value highly? What you fear?

Do you provide a safe space for them to vent frustrations? To share their hopes and dreams? To talk through their concerns?

Trust is a two way street. And you can probably do more at your level than top management can ever accomplish.

Poor interpersonal relations

You don’t need to be everyone’s best friend. But you can cultivate an environment that fosters better interpersonal relations.

The way you run a meeting can promote relationship building. So can small talk and management by walking around.

Little celebrations of personal events go a long way. And so does a group lunch or an after hours social gathering.

But also a general attitude that personal relationships are important by way of things like laughter in the office, explicit appreciation of efforts, and a focus on healthy conflict resolution when it does occur.

You can have a tremendous impact on all of these things.

Inflexible working conditions

If you can allow someone to shift their schedule or award them some comp time for extra work on a night or weekend, then you have at your disposal one of the most powerful tools to help people.

Everyone’s schedule is a mess with lots of things pulling in all sorts of directions. Letting someone work from home, adjust a deadline, or take care of an important personal task during a long lunch can be really helpful.

Maybe you can even help to change how some procedures work. Or adopt a new piece of software to automate something.

Think broadly about the flexibility you can offer. It probably includes some things that are really meaningful to your team members.

Unclear expectations

This is one where you can and should have a big impact. Your job is to translate the larger goals of the organization into more concrete and actionable items for your team.

That helps to set the context. But you can do more.

Too often we stop short and leave it at the goals when it would be much more helpful if we described in more detail what success looks like.

When you delegate tasks, are you specific about what needs to be done? Are you clear on when it needs to be done? Do you set a checkpoint to review work in progress?

All of these things are helpful to people. This is not micromanagement. You are not getting into the details of how the work is done but rather making sure that you are clear about the goals, the approach, and what results you expect.

Lack of opportunity for personal growth

Do you run a mercilessly efficient sweatshop aimed at maximizing output at all costs? Or do you look for opportunities to provide cross-training, collaboration, and new skills development?

Do you spend time and money on training? Even if you don’t have a large training budget, you can allow people to spend time on learning tasks.

Do you provide opportunities for staff to work with people in other areas of the organization? To work on committees. To volunteer.

This is an area that you can have a big impact on individuals. But also on your team. Because many of these investments help to build a much stronger team in the long run.

Rather than have people dodge things with a “that’s not my job” attitude, you can build a team that understands and appreciates the roles of others. A team where contributions of individuals are better understood. And where collaboration becomes the norm.

Bringing it all together

Even if things aren’t perfect in your organization, the impact you can have on your team is profound.

If you let go of things you can’t easily influence and focus on things more directly in your control, you can improve morale on your team.

By focusing on leadership at your level you can become someone your team can rely on and build trust in. You can set the tone for your group, and that tone can be different (and better) than the tone at large.

This will be a first step in building trust, which is a huge factor in morale. Even if your team is shaky on trusting the organization at large, they will get tremendous benefit from being able to trust you more.

From there you can cultivate better interpersonal relationships more broadly in your area. The little things that seem trivial can actually be quite important.

At the work level, the more flexibility you can offer the better. And there may be many ways that you can allow this, by interpreting rules favorably to staff to crafting your own rules for your group.

Of course, your leadership responsibility to set clear expectations is probably one of the best ways to help people in their work. Which also improves morale.

Defining what success looks like and when it needs to be delivered is crucial.

Finally, providing as much opportunity for personal growth makes for a happier employee and a stronger team over the long run.

Leadership at your level can greatly improve morale, even if it is lacking more broadly in the organization. And if your organization is already strong in this area, your efforts in this area will help your team go to the next level.