Leadership

Attack a team morale problem on many fronts

Managers who sense morale problems when they take over a team need to act to correct them. Tom Mochal responds to a member's question about team morale with practical advice.

This article originally appeared on Builder.com’s sister site, TechRepublic.com.

TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.

Question
I just took a new job in a group that has experienced a lot of turnover, and it appears that morale is pretty low. The group just completed a very busy and stressful year, delivering a number of critical projects with varying degrees of success. I’ve got some ideas for how to turn things around, but I wondered what your advice would be.

Answer
When managers have been with a team for a while, they tend to get into a routine regarding their staff. This routine can mask a slow downward spiral in morale. Sometimes managers don’t realize what’s going on until their people complain openly or start to quit.

However, managers taking on a new team typically meet with the staff as a group and individually. They ask questions about morale and learn how people feel about their jobs. They start to see problems the previous manager didn’t see.

This appears to be the case in your situation. The prior manager may not have realized there were people problems, but as a newcomer, you sensed the situation quickly.

Morale problems don’t happen overnight, and they can’t be resolved overnight. The place to start is with meetings that will let you find the source of the problem. Sometimes the causes and remedies are out of your control, but I think you’ll find that the simple act of listening will help. Regardless of how much you can do, if group members see that you’re trying to help, they’ll feel better. With that in mind, here are some problems to listen for in your meetings and some steps you can take to start addressing morale problems.

The work isn’t challenging
Support teams often complain of unchallenging work. This is a tough one because, in most cases, your work is your work, and you can’t change its basic nature. However, you can take steps to introduce new challenges.

For instance, you can rotate people into new roles. If two people have done the same job for a long time, switch them. This gives each person an opportunity to learn new skills and new areas of expertise while also giving you more backup coverage.

You can also give people more responsibility. This might include letting team members track the team’s budget, putting people in charge of support activities for an application, or letting new people manage the work of contractors.

There are few opportunities to learn new technologies
If your group works with old technology, you may not have many options. Still, you can try a couple of approaches:
  • Rotate people into new technologies. You can switch responsibilities to allow people to learn new skills, even if those skills aren’t on the cutting edge.
  • Increase training opportunities.

People can keep up with new technologies through training events. You probably don’t want to spend a lot of money on training that people can’t use, but it’s not hard to find free opportunities. For instance, wireless technology is still fairly new, and you probably won’t have to look far to find free (or inexpensive) seminars about it. You can also ask outside speakers to come in and talk about new technologies. In many cases, these speakers will be people within your own company.

People don’t know what’s expected of them
Your team members’ understanding of what’s expected of them is directly within your control. You need to examine people’s performance objectives and make sure they’re relevant to their job. If possible, these objectives should align with department and division objectives as well. You should make sure people clearly understand their job responsibilities, their current work activities, and how their contributions fit into the larger picture from a project, team, or department standpoint. You can also establish semiannual or quarterly review processes to be certain that people understand your performance expectations.

Compensation issues
Your options may be limited when it comes to compensation, but see if you have any flexibility. First, you can ask your human resources department to validate how your group is compensated compared to similar roles within the company and in the marketplace. If the compensation is in line with what it should be, you can set that perception with your team. If it is, in fact, lower than it should be, see what your options are in terms of salary adjustments, onetime market adjustments, special bonuses, or stock options.

Offer intangibles
In addition to resolving problems, you may have an opportunity to introduce more flexibility into the team environment and give people more control over their jobs. Both of these approaches will help people feel better about their work, and they can also alleviate the morale problems that can come with long periods of overtime. To increase work flexibility:
  • Offer flextime options to allow people to work early or late. Or let them work four 10-hour days or four-and-a-half nine-hour days.
  • Try to offer some form of telecommuting. Look at one to two days per week at first, perhaps trying it out with selected people.
  • Make sure people have the hardware and software they need to do their jobs. It’s extremely frustrating for IT people to do development work on slow equipment, especially when hardware is so cheap.
  • Have more fun. Look for an opportunity for a social event every month, even if it’s just a lunch brought into the building.

As a new manager, you have an opportunity to see things from a new perspective and put creative solutions in place. The ideas in this column give you a sense of what you can do. I’m sure you can uncover other approaches as well. The important point is that you are responsible for your team’s morale. Regardless of the limitations the work environment might impose, you can help make things better.
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