Low employee morale is one today's most pressing management challenges.

Winners know that defense is as important as offense. It’s true in sports, board games, battle, and certainly when tackling the management challenges that plague the modern workforce. Among the many problems that should be approached with a balanced attention to both offensive and defensive strategies is the challenge of low employee morale.

When most leaders think about raising employee morale, their first thought is offense. Employee awards ceremonies and team building events come to mind. Leaders are understandably eager to implement programs, processes, and initiatives that drive employee morale up, and this instinct makes sense. These steps are the creative element of supporting employee morale; they’re all about building something new that will transform company culture.

To combat low employee morale, take both proactive and preventative measures.
To combat low employee morale, take both proactive and preventative measures.

What many leaders don’t realize is the undercurrent of successful employee morale programs is their less-flashy, yet equally impactful defensive strategies. Defensive strategies are especially effective when you’re working to overcome already-low employee morale. They exercise their impact by eradicating the invisible structures, factors, and even people that work against high employee morale. In doing this, defense paves the way for offense to make its move.

As a counterpart to our recent article, 9 Ways to Boost Employee Morale, the current article shares key defensive tactics that are less about pushing morale to its heights and more about rescuing it from its lows. The strategies shared here are preventative and target common workplace culprits of low employee morale which, until properly addressed, work actively against any proactive strategy a leader puts in place.

By incorporating both proactive and preventative tactics in your approach to supporting employee morale, you can create the most successful kind of solution possible for your company and transform its culture.

Tips to Overcome Low Employee Morale

1. Stop Micromanaging

Micromanagement is one of the most effective ways to suffocate employee morale. It robs people of the critical sense of ownership they need for work to be meaningful and engaging. Beyond that, micromanagement diminishes efficiency because employees never get the opportunity to sink into concentrated workflows. Instead, they must constantly check in with their supervisors and course-correct in response to micro-pieces of feedback.

Make no mistake, frequent feedback is a central tenet of effective management, but there’s a glaring difference between that and micromanagement.

Micromanagement is not going to help raise employee morale.
Micromanagement is not going to help raise employee morale.

Whereas micromanagement is founded on an absence of trust and involves a stream of ceaseless criticism, frequent feedback means calling out both strengths and areas for improvement with appropriate frequency. Additionally, frequent feedback is good for employee morale and micromanagement is decidedly not.

Weekly 1:1s are generally the right cadence for managers to check-in with direct reports. These meetings offer a fairly substantial period of time to exchange feedback but don’t take place so often that employees are never free to truly take the reigns over their jobs. 

Couple weekly check-ins with an employee recognition program, and you’ll be able to shift the potentially benevolent intentions behind micromanagement into a practice much more conducive to employee morale.

2. Don’t Neglect Peer-to-Peer Relationships

It’s hard to go to work every day with people you feel no connection to. Humans are social creatures, and whether it’s a running club, church, or work, we have a tendency to find meaningful connections in any context that involves other people. When we don’t, the days feel especially lonely and productivity suffers. 

One culprit behind low employee morale could be weak peer-to-peer relationships
One culprit behind low employee morale could be weak peer-to-peer relationships

In most cases where peer-to-peer connections are thin (if not nonexistent) it’s not because colleagues simply don’t like each other. More likely, the problem is that your work environment doesn’t facilitate meaningful interpersonal connections.

Managers looking to overcome low employee morale need to encourage employees to get to know one another through opportunities for outside-the-office connection, whether that’s happy hours or casual Slack channels. Additionally, encouraging peers to recognize one another for excellent work helps build trust between colleagues based on mutual expressions of gratitude. When peer-to-peer relationships are strong, not only will employee morale be more stable, productivity, engagement, and quality of work tend to improve, too.

3. Set Clear Goals (and Place Them Within Reach)

Work can feel like repetition, or it can feel like progress. If it’s the former, your team members are going to burn out, and they’re going to burn out fast. People die from monotony — maybe not literally, but employee morale certainly does. 

For employee morale to soar, people need to feel like they're making progress.
For employee morale to soar, people need to feel like they’re making progress.

On the flip-side, employees become highly motivated when they feel their work is driving progress forward. When employees feel that they’re contributing to a successful mission, they’re inspired to keep going — mostly because they have somewhere to go.

To help employees feel like they’re making meaningful progress, encourage managers to set challenging, yet attainable long-term goals. You know that tiny burst of joy you get when you check something off your to-do list? This is like that, times one hundred.

Whether goals apply at an employee, team, or company-level, clearly communicate what they are and support employees in making plans to get there. Employees don’t necessarily need to hit every goal, but they should succeed at least 70% of the time. When they do, they’ll be left with a resounding sense of accomplishment that raises employee morale by contributing to a sense of progress.

4. Improve Work-Life Balance

Finally, perhaps the biggest enemy of employee morale is poor work-life balance. When employees don’t pay an appropriate amount of attention to their personal lives compared to professional, burnout ensues. Symptoms of burnout range from difficulty concentrating and headaches to sudden (unhealthy) changes in eating and sleeping habits. When employees experience burnout, morale all but disappears.

Poor work-life balance is another frequent cause of low employee morale.
Poor work-life balance is another frequent cause of low employee morale.

You can promote work-life balance (and prevent burnout) by supporting wellness initiatives, offering flexible work options that accommodate family or medical needs, and most importantly, checking in with employees to make sure they feel equipped to thrive both in and outside the office. 

Be sure you have these defensive strategies firmly in place, then check out our article 9 Ways to Boost Employee Morale to take your team’s morale to new heights. Amazing offense in combination with solid defense is the secret you need to win this management challenge.

Katerina Mery is a Marketing Specialist at Fond with a background in cognitive psychology and a passion for improving the way people live and work. She especially enjoys learning about how to accomplish this through rewards and recognition. In her spare time, you can find Katerina running outside, admiring art, and exploring the latest and greatest local restaurants.