Eva Neumann

OPINION

5 ways to kill bad morale

Times of uncertainty demand communications, communications, communications

We’re told Aristotle once said, “nature abhors a vacuum.” It’s the principle of horror vacui in physics. And the same is true of human nature. In the absence of information, people fill in the blanks. Often, they fill in a lack of information with negative rumor and speculation.

Why risk increasing misinformation among your employees? Why not fill the vacuum with the truth?

A little bit of honesty and clarity go a long way toward dispelling myths, quashing rumormongers and keeping morale out of the ditch. I’ve outlined five steps for effectively communicating to employees. These rules always apply, but they’re even more important during times of uncertainty such as looming furloughs, layoffs and budget cuts brought on by sequestration or other economic conditions.

Step 1: Be honest, all the time

Establish credibility with employees by being transparent. If they truly believe you’ve told them everything you know, and you do that consistently, then fewer folks will be likely to make up their own versions of the story. Every organization has a few busybodies, but honesty really is the best policy when it comes to communicating to your employees. If you don’t know what the impact of a looming acquisition or piece of legislation will be, it’s OK to say so. But if you’re secretly planning for scenarios in the background, your employees will appreciate knowing what potential implications are instead of being kept totally in the dark.

Obviously, some company information or details of crisis planning must be kept confidential to ensure the company’s vitality and prevent competitors or other parties from gaining an upper hand. The point here is that you shouldn’t default to a secret-first policy when it comes to information that impacts your employees.

Step 2: Be clear about what you’re saying

So you’ve decided to share what you know with the team. Good. But all that sharing could be worthless if your employees don’t understand the consequences of the information you’re putting out. Or, perhaps the scenario in play itself has not been fully, clearly described to them. Not all employees are going to be as savvy about the marketplace or the business as your senior leadership, so you can’t presume they’ll just ‘get it.’

Don’t make employees muddle through tons of info and organizational gobbledygook. Prepare FAQ sheets and other materials they can use as quick-reference guides to know how they should prepare for, and act in the event of, the given scenario. Make your messages concise and in plain language.

Step 3: Use the right channels

Disseminate the honest, clear information you’ve gathered through the correct channels for reaching your target audience. Whatever you do, don’t presume you know how employees consume information within your organization.

I once had a client who swore up and down that every employee in the organization received a certain popup message when they logged on to their computers in the morning. The client believed employees really valued the information in this daily organizational news blurb popup and was dead-set on pushing out information to the workforce via that channel. The goal was to have the information serve as a lead-in that would get employees to click through to an intranet site with more information about a program. After we deployed this tactic, we went back to gather metrics from the intranet site. Zero referrals from the popup screen. Even worse? A survey of employees turned up that some of them actually don’t ever get that message on their computers and those who do find it annoying and immediately close it out. As I suspected, this wasn’t the best channel for reaching employees.

It’s very easy to conduct a little research to find out how and where employees get information about their careers most frequently. Don’t ignore that important step. Even if you’re honest and clear with your message, it won’t matter if no one ever hears or sees it.

Step 4: Listen!

Don’t make internal communication a one-way street. You might do a great job of putting out the right information through the right channels, but if you don’t have any mechanisms built in to allow for two-way communication, your efforts can still fail. You need to hear what employees have to say—both to you and to each other.

Sometimes leadership in an organization can get so bogged down in bureaucracy, or just the necessity of pushing out information to employees, that managers forget listening is also part of communicating. Provide forums, whether physical or via electronic methods, for employees to ask questions, provide feedback and share ideas. You could be missing out on a great cost-cutting tip from an innovative thinker who is on the front lines.

Step 5: Use your leadership team

Part of that listening and gathering feedback step can be carried out by your leadership team. I’m not talking about senior executives. Your project team leads and mid-level managers are knee-deep in day-to-day tasks with your line-level employees (the ones who make up the bulk of the organization). Leverage these managers to deliver news, find ideas and gather feedback.

By using the leadership team to deliver clear, honest messages, you not only get the word out — you empower leaders and give them more credibility. In turn, workers will come to respect and trust these managers more. The organization as a whole will see more people communicating in times of feast and famine alike.

Just get out there and do it

The longer you wait to put an effective employee communication plan in place, the more you’re investing in speculation, rumors, diminishing morale or workforce defections instead of productivity and results. You don’t pay your employees to wonder about and spread rumors, feel uneasy, or look for new career opportunities. Instead, keep their focus where it should be: on their jobs.

Establish long-term trust by keeping the lines of communication open via the right channels and platforms for audience segments within your workforce. No one expects things to always be perfect at work, but they do expect you to look out for their best interests. How will they know that’s exactly what you’re doing if you aren’t communicating it with credibility?

Reader Comments

Wed, Feb 26, 2014 Mike Benton

Great Article and I find that Step 4 "Listen" has been the one area that I find the toughest for most leaders. When they have the buck stops here mentality it's difficult for some to be open to Constructive Improvement. Mike

Mon, Apr 1, 2013

In our company, we frequently receive messages from top executives telling us to keep up the good work, that we are the best team in the industry, and that we build the world's best products. At the same time, we are undergoing continual reorganization and voluntary and involuntary reductions; top management is constantly changing; and no one feels secure about their future with the company. The feel-good messages are being perceived as fluff because the employees are fully aware that each one is expendable. Don't tell us how good we are when we are all constantly wondering if we will have a job. In 25 years, morale has never been this low.

Thu, Mar 28, 2013

Now if Government Managers would read and apply this, mine would be a much better place to work.

Thu, Mar 28, 2013

You say be honest and use your leadership team. The "leadership team" at this facility are allergic to honesty, so this system won't quite work here.

Thu, Mar 28, 2013

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you! still applies!

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