What to do When Morale Takes a Hit

Development is behind. Good people are asked to leave the organization. Employees think the change is more pain than gain. Training requires time that people simply don’t have. It’s rare that a program of change doesn’t face dark days.

We get tired of working long hours, tired of pushing back, tired of trying to convince people, just plain tired. When the project team is pushing the envelope and showing signs of fraying at the edges, leaders must intervene. It’s a primary function of change professionals to be a barometer for morale and give leaders a nudge when needed.

I asked my colleagues how they have responded to morale issues and together we came up with the following ideas to respond to flagging morale.

1. Safety First

Low morale is a mental health issue. Paul O-Keeffe recommended reviewing the team one by one with leaders to talk through potential overload and ‘risk’. If there are specific individuals you are concerned about, call them. Take them for coffee. Express genuine care, ask how they are holding up, and what they need if they are struggling. 

Don’t be afraid to ask whether individuals are thinking of leaving. It’s better to know early before it’s past the point of no return.

2. Create Space to Recharge

It’s hard to be positive when you are running on empty. Help them recharge.

The best advice I received was that when morale is low, the last thing people want is to spend more time with their peers. They already see them too much!! So, don’t book a mini celebration during a time when people need a break from the work, or during a particularly intense period where every moment of work counts. 

  • Deliver a small but meaningful cash bonus along with personal thanks (contribution by Troy Edelen)
  • Provide gift cards or an expense code to take friends/family out for an evening
  • Book a day off on everyone’s calendar where there will be no emails or meetings. Just rest! Make it a Project Moratorium (but give it a better title)
  • Send a personally hand-written thank you note to each member of the team
  • Send a personally hand-written thank you note to the person’s spouse or family (trickier to arrange, but bigger impact).
  • Send everyone an UberEats gift voucher for a meal. Make it enough for two and ask them to share it with a friend or family member

3. Remind Them How to Recharge

One of my favorite exercises in virtual meetings is to have people share how they relax. Responses are often numerous and humorous. It makes everyone smile and at the same time, reminds people to take time for themselves. Exercise, rest, and good meals should not be sacrificed for the job. 

4. Say Thank You with POWER

Carey Haas reminded me that when morale is low, it’s a good time to expend some “leader capital” and call in the execs to express their appreciation. Coaching may be required to ensure it sounds genuine.

They don’t need to say a lot (and shouldn’t). A short story that demonstrates empathy (“I’ve been there!”) and a heartfelt “thanks” are often enough to encourage the team. 

Want to make an even bigger impact? Send a handwritten thank you card to each person. They become ongoing powerful reminders that leaders care.

5. Acknowledge the Pain and Point to Hope

And regardless of who speaks, do not sugarcoat the message. Change can hurt. Morale gets low because people are struggling with the pace and the problems. Call that out. And then point them to the future…

When coaching leaders, I tell them to say something like, “I know we are in a really tough space right now. Some of you are pulling long hours. You’re tired and maybe it feels like this will never end. Well, it will end. At some point soon, this will all be history. We will cross that finish line and be proud of what’s been accomplished. Remember why we began this journey. All of your efforts are helping us make a better future…”

Connect the future with positive impact to people: Clients, customer, community, country. Remind them that there is hope at the end of the road.

Thoughtfully yours,

Jeff Skipper