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5 Ways to Build Employee Morale That Lasts

by Hannah Guenveur
on September 8, 2017

Employee turnover is expensive. The median cost of an employee leaving the company is 21% of their annual salary, reports the Center for American Progress. The good news is, this cost is preventable. With some intentional changes by leaders at all levels, and by considering an employee’s experience at work, organizations across industries and sizes can increase workforce morale and keep employee turnover low.

When it comes to improving employee morale, some leaders immediately jump to short-term fixes, like increasing compensation or doling out bonuses as a primary solution. Unfortunately, financial rewards may not yield the long-term returns leaders might expect.  According to Glassdoor Chief Economist, Andrew Chamberlain, “across all income levels, the top predictor of workplace satisfaction is not pay…Among the six workplace factors we examined, compensation and benefits were consistently rated among the least important factors of workplace happiness.” So let’s do some digging into what factors DO make a difference to employees.

1. Promote, Don’t Avoid, Career Development

While pay may not be a driving force behind an employee’s reason for moving on, stagnation in their job certainly can be. Chamberlain explains, “Even after controlling for pay, industry, job title, and many other factors, we find workers who stay longer in the same job without a title change are significantly more likely to leave for another company for the next step in their career.” Employees today are looking for new opportunities and challenges more frequently than employees of the past. If the performance is there, we need to support an employee’s desire to take on new projects, more responsibility, and possibly even explore a role in a new department. Leaders should talk career progression with their employees regularly and openly. As Chamberlain adds, “By providing clear paths for employees, moving them through job titles on a regular progression over time, employers can help boost perceived career opportunities and limit this type of harmful stagnation.”

2. Focus on Building Strengths, not Improving Weaknesses

For a moment, think back to your last performance review. Your leader highlighted your wins for the year, talked through the pipeline, and emphasized areas to improve for next year. What’s the one thing you walked out of that room remembering? The areas for improvement. As human beings, we have a hard time focusing on our strengths naturally. Leaders need to be intentional about helping their people A) figure out what their strengths truly are and B) giving them opportunities to leverage them. As explained by Michelle Stohlmeyer Russell and Lori Moskowitz Lepler of BCG, “This allows people to leverage their strengths to accelerate improvement. For example, instead of telling someone who is quiet that they need to speak up in meetings, we may highlight their ability to extract insights out of analysis and suggest they think about what insights to share at the next meeting.” In their research, they noticed, “This linkage has enabled a powerful transformation in the way managers and advisors give feedback and coach. One female consultant reflected that ‘understanding how my core strengths can help me to address my development areas and propel me forward in my career is much more helpful than focusing solely on where I need to improve.’” For many teams, identifying and cataloging strengths is a one-time project that might provide a brief glimpse into employees skills and opportunities for growth. The challenge organizations will need to take on will be to have data and insights on employee working styles and strengths readily available as their employees develop over time.

3. Truly Embrace Diversity

As highlighted in an earlier blog post, “Two Ways to Encourage Employees to Bring Their Whole Selves to Work,” workers, especially Millennials, care about having leaders who value them as both people and employees. To do this right, we have to recognize the individual strengths of our team members, as mentioned above, as well as their unique qualities. Many leaders understand the importance of recruiting a diverse team and supporting diversity initiatives in their organizations. Where many managers get this wrong is when it comes to coaching and giving feedback. As Russell and Lepler explain, “A lot of organizations state that they want people with diverse backgrounds on their teams — but then coach people to behave uniformly. A truly diverse organization that reaps the benefits of diversity, better serving customers or clients in different situations, needs to value a range of communication and working styles.” Promoting diversity in the workplace is not meeting a goal percentage of people of color or women. While this is a start, it’s about recognizing that all employees work differently and as such need to be coached differently. Open dialogue and understanding an employee’s whole self are key.

4. Recognition, Recognition, Recognition

Recognizing team members goes hand-in-hand with the last couple techniques we’ve covered, as key to its success is individualization. Just as all employees don’t want to be coached the same, they also don’t want to be recognized the same. If you’re not sure how workers want to be recognized, ask them. Futhermore, don’t save this recognition for a performance review or even a one-on-one. As Forbes contributor Cheryl Conner explains, “When someone is doing something awesome, tell them. Recognize the individuals on your team who receive good feedback from your clients. It’s important for employees to feel their efforts are being recognized, and the recognition further perpetuates their desire to go above and beyond for your clients, which of course, sets you apart as an organization as well.” Real-time feedback and recognition is not limited to job-based successes either. Conner goes on, “Recognize every single employee’s birthday. Send gifts for new babies and weddings. Be involved in employees’ lives to let them feel loved and valued not only as employees, but also as family members and as human beings.” Sound familiar?

5. Find Meaning

What really drives engagement, motivation, and employee success is when employees feel like they play a part in that mission. They know their “why”; they find meaning in their work. I wrote about identifying the “why” earlier this year, and the concepts crucial to engagement and employee success ring equally true for increasing morale and thereby retention. As Conner puts it, “Your employees are part of something bigger than themselves, but do they know it? From the first interview, potential candidates need to understand and share in the vision of what you are doing as an organization. That vision alone will motivate and inspire your team, down to its junior members, which comes back full circle in effectively facilitating company growth.” When you make your meaning in your work known, and when you encourage your employees to link their personal motivations and interests to their work, morale will naturally increase and drive your team forward.

Pay and benefits alone do not contribute to workforce morale. In contrast, the concepts outlined above have statistically-proven impacts on employee engagement and retention. Here in the Twin Cities, we’re excited to further the discussion on the employee experience at our upcoming event, the eX Summit, on October 3rd. For more information, visit our event page.

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