How To Kill Office Morale And Alienate Employees

How happy are your employees? Do you know? Do you care?

The emotionally bereft 1950s are more than fifty years behind us but some employers still haven’t cottoned onto the idea that managing morale is one of the most important factors influencing a company’s success or failure. These are the people who aren’t aware that there should be a carrot at the end of the stick – they just think that the stick is a handy way to keep employees in check. These are the people who play power games because they can, who get a kick out of kicking others, especially when they’re down, and who love nothing more than watching the spark of life flicker and die in other people’s eyes.

To be honest, however, you don’t have to be a sadistic psychopath to be a morale killer. Some managers inadvertently manage to kill team spirit through ignorance, fear and inconsistency.

We look at four of the biggest morale killers in the workplace – and give some valuable tips on how to avoid them.

1)     Force the fun

Team building is important, we know, but team spirit and bonding can’t be forced. So don’t try. We’re not saying you shouldn’t plan fun days or events for the sake of team building. We’re just saying that you need to ensure that the activities are fun for everyone, that everyone gets a say, and that no one is forced to do something that they really don’t want to do.

For example, you might think that joining a corporate evening cricket league is the best idea ever. You might think that there is no better way to bond than to spend two nights a week watching over after over of “action”, but your best sales person, who happens to be a single mother of three might not agree. If you make supporting the cricket team twice a week a mandatory event, you’ll risk alienating your employees who do, believe it or not, have a life outside of work.

You might also think that planning a weekend away every quarter to indulge your inner adventurer with quad biking, sand boarding and extreme mountain biking, with boozy costume parties afterwards is just the bees knees. After all, you never learn more about your co-workers than when they’re dressed like Batman and nursing some cracked ribs, as well as some G&Ts. But, your teetotaller financial manager who runs a weekend theatre group for underprivileged children in the community might have other ideas.

The bottom line is that your employees are probably quite an eclectic group. Some will share your love for cricket and quad biking but others would be happier volunteering at a soup kitchen, or playing in a chess tournament, or pairing cheese, chocolate and wine. If you’re going to plan formal team building events, try to plan for at least four a year, and ensure that each activity is sufficiently different from the others that all tastes are catered for. Ask employees to submit ideas and put it to a vote. And, plan on holding the events during work hours. If you’re going to insist on a weekend away, plan something that allows employees to bring their partners or kids, or provide childcare or subsidised babysitting.

2)     Be inconsistent

People like to know where they stand, they like to know what to expect, and they like to know what is expected of them. They can operate comfortably within these known parameters, but when you’re inconsistent with your expectations, rewards, punishments and the like, your employees don’t know from one minute to the next what they can and can’t do and what they can and can’t get away with. And this causes unhappiness, stress and office politics.

Calvin Sun uses the classic example of a scheduled office meeting. Some employees take pains to ensure that they are there, reading and waiting on time, while others will saunter in 10, 15 or 20 minutes late. Sometimes you delay the meeting, keeping everyone waiting until every last person has arrived. You may say something about the importance of being punctual, but come the next meeting and the same people are late, you delay the meeting again. And again, and again.

There is one crystal-clear message: the rules only apply to some. Other messages aren’t as clear, for instance, your employees could think that you have favourites who can get away with murder, or they could think that you’re scared of certain staff members who can then get away with murder, or they could think that you’re weak and they’ll start trying to get away with murder.

Consistency also applies to praise. Do you always praise good work? Do you always praise it no matter who does it? Are the expectations of good work clear – do employees know when they’ve done something praise-worthy?

It also applies to your behaviour? Is what you say consistent with what you do? For example, when you ask for feedback on a certain matter, do you, as Sun says, shoot the messenger when feedback is given? Or are you, in fact, the person who is always late for your own meetings?

Strive to be consistent in everything you say and do. If you say you have an open door policy, don’t tell people you’re too busy to see to them and that they should make an appointment if they want to talk. You may not like certain people in the office, but you need to maintain a professional manner with all of your employees. Make a concerted effort not to show any favouritism and treat everyone fairly.

3)     Stab employees in the back

Susan M. Healthfield calls it throwing employees under the bus; it could also be called throwing them to the wolves. Basically, it’s blaming them to cover your butt. Even if someone on your department did make a horrendous mistake that cost the company millions of dollars, your first reaction shouldn’t be to run to the powers-that-be with an alibi and an accusatory finger. We’re not saying that you should be willing to get sacked for someone else’s incompetence, but you need to show your employees that you support them and will go in to bat for them when they make mistakes. If you can prove your loyalty to them, you will win heaps of loyalty, dedication and commitment in return.

4)     Not offer training or development opportunities

As a rule, people like to grow, they like to learn and they like to take on new challenges and you need to provide, or at the very least encourage these opportunities. If you are prepared to let your employees stagnate in their jobs, then you shouldn’t be surprised when their performance starts to decline. Bored employees are not productive employees. If you can’t provide training opportunities of your own, then the least you can do is subsidise external training courses.

Don’t forget about the importance of in-house training, especially for new hires and new promotions. Just because someone was stellar in the previous position in the company, doesn’t mean they couldn’t do with some training and mentoring to help them settle into their new role.

There is more to office morale than these four factors, and seldom is one person to blame for a dour, stressed and depressed staff complement. But it really does take just one bad manager who indulges in any of these morale killing behaviours and your staff turnover will soar while your profits plummet. 

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As a freelancer, Jemima Winslow doesn’t have to deal with the pain of forced fun, inconsistent management and office politics. But she wasn’t always this lucky. She’s had to cope with her share of dodgy bosses and dying morale, so she knows the value of support, encouragement and basic human consideration.