After Hours

10 surefire ways to kill morale

It's easy to demotivate your staff without realizing you're doing it. Calvin Sun highlights a few morale-busting behaviors to watch out for.

The sad thing about killing morale is that you can do it without even trying. In the words of a George Strait song, "It just comes natural." But if you damage morale, you will lower the productivity of your group and create problems for yourself. Look at this list and see whether you recognize yourself in any of these morale-killers.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Punish desired behavior

This action, and the following one, fall under the category of sending mixed messages. Do you think you could never do something like this? If you're a parent, you may have had this conversation with your child: "Anytime you have a question or problem, please come see Mommy or Daddy." But then what happens when that child does come see you? "Come back later; can't you see I'm busy?!"

With respect to the workplace, the number one example of punishing desired behavior is "shooting the messenger" following a management statement to "be open and honest about your concerns."

2: Reward undesired behavior

How many times has it happened: You show up on time, or even early for a meeting. But because several people still haven't arrived, the meeting leader decides to postpone the meeting for 15 or 20 minutes.

What message does this action send? It tells the latecomers that arriving late is okay and tells the punctual people that their punctuality is useless. If you're running the meeting, and people are on time, be fair to those people and start on time. This same principle goes for other situations as well.

3: Play favorites

It's okay to like some people more than others. It's okay to feel more comfortable around some people than others. It's a problem, though, if you start treating people unequally because you like or are more comfortable around them. That "other" group of people will lose interest in doing a good job because they believe you will not recognize them for it. So regardless of how you feel about people, reward and evaluate them on their work, not on how you feel about them.

The best example I've seen of not playing favorites happened at an organization that had just become a client of mine. The director of information technology was showing me around the office and while doing so, stopped by an area at which a woman was working. He explained my situation and introduced me, and then the woman gave me certain administrative system privileges. A few hours later, at lunchtime, I was heading out with this director, and who should show up? The woman I had met previously. It turned out that they were dating (and since then have gotten married). However, their demeanor was so professional that an observer would have been hard pressed to detect any special relationship. That is the kind of impartiality you too should strive for.

4: Change direction early and often

If you keep changing your mind on how you want staff to handle an assignment, don't be surprised at their negative reaction. Be sure of what you want beforehand. If you are changing direction because your own boss is changing direction, let that boss know the negative consequences.

5: Ignore the positives

Are you the kind of person who, when hearing that the Berlin Wall came down, felt sorry that the guards were now out of a job? If so, you probably ignore other positive things. Doing so will demotivate your staff. Without putting on the proverbial rose-colored glasses, try to see positive elements in a situation, even bad ones. It can make a difference to your staff.

6: Focus only on the negatives

Likewise, are you the kind of person who, if you saw someone walk on water, would say, "What a fraud! That person can't swim!"? The same discussion applies here as in point 5.

7: Use questionable measurements

Do you remember that old Dilbert cartoon where the boss says he will reward employees based on how many bugs they find in their program code? In the last panel, Wally says, "I'm gonna write me a new minivan this afternoon." If you measure the wrong things, you may get the wrong results. Even worse, you may discourage desirable behavior.

Let's say you run a department store. One day, the housewares department decides to run a sale, thus marking down all of its items, even to the point of selling below cost. As a result, many people come to the store, buying things not just from housewares, but from other departments as well. The department store overall sees a huge increase in sales and net income because of the initiative of the housewares department.

Yet if all you did was look at simple profit and loss by department, you would see a huge loss in housewares. If you then decided to punish that department, you would have acted unwisely. Make sure of what you are measuring.

8: Fail to give credit

If people do a good job, recognize them for it. Of course, people value money and salary increases. However, even a simple thank you or public acknowledgment of someone's good work will do wonders for their effort. Conversely, failing to give credit may make them less willing to make the same effort in the future.

9: Micromanage

To staff members or subordinates, nothing shouts "lack of confidence" more than your efforts to oversee everything they're doing. If you check everything or try to do everything, how will they people ever develop? More important, your lack of confidence will come through clearly. Therefore, unless you're really in a critical situation, let people learn and even fail if necessary. They will learn best that way and will have a higher opinion of you.

10.  Freak out

If you constantly freak out over small things, your staff will become reluctant to approach you about bad news. Rather than focus on what went wrong earlier, try to focus on how to resolve the situation. That doesn't mean never speaking to someone about what went wrong. However, it does mean being sensitive to situations and also means knowing when to speak and when to stay silent. The more you maintain equanimity, the greater the chances your staff will have high morale.

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

29 comments
aandruli
aandruli

For example: Develop a new policy, send it to everyone in an e-mail, then scream at everyone for not following the new directive. When you get back to your cubicle, read the failure notice on the e-mail you sent, but instead of apologizing, say nothing and re-assure yourself they all probably needed a chastising anyway.

iowastate
iowastate

I am sure that all of these negatives are taught in Officers Candidate School School. Most of these bad habits are ingrained into many the officers in the military ESPECIALLY the young gentleman of the military academies such stiff necks, such poor leadership ablilities and so damn inefficient

felleroy
felleroy

We (you) got to stop teaching Psychopaths how to look normal. If your boss has any of these traits you should be looking for another job, unless you are also obsequious and servile.

rbahadur
rbahadur

I more thing to add : Don't Make the mistake of including your own name along with the team member who actually did the work to take credit: Like some people in my place do : this guy will say quote : " I and my team member sat together to solve the problem" This was said in front of the colleague who did all the work on his own.

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

I once worked for a manager who said that when he found out who told the department head the truth, that he would fire that person. It seems that the manager was lying to the department head regarding the status of certain projects.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

For two years, I had a supervisor who was proficient at all 10 of these morale-killers. Thankfully, he was "moved on" before it did irreparable damage to my sanity. 15 years after the fact, I'm mostly recovered.

Gis Bun
Gis Bun

I worked at a Fortune 500 company [maybe at one time a top 20 company], and they had announced that they'd be cutting jobs but we had to wait close to 2 weeks until the cuts happened. Let's just say people weren't working to hard. Even a senior manager was turfed.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

We just discussed this person over lunch today! "Perfect 10!"

Slayer_
Slayer_

It's depressing... Maybe I should forward this to my manager, would that be bad?

Cerebral*Origami
Cerebral*Origami

11) Only value employees who are actively involved in the physical product. My boss likes to remind me that I am only a bit jockey and that I am pure over head. That I don't actually contribute anything to the bottom line.

GrandeMocha
GrandeMocha

Wow, we have all of this. #9 & #10 are currently driving me crazy.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

In my 24 years on active duty, I never had one of the many officers I was proud to serve under pull any of this crap. In fact, I only saw this behavior twice, and both times it was from an NCO.

johnm
johnm

Elder daughter was working for a production company that had just completed a major project way over budget/time and then announced that they were going to cut staff in half and do the follow-on project under strict time controls. She quit because she was afraid that she would be one of the ones they retained.

drowningnotwaving
drowningnotwaving

What do they expect will happen when such announcements are made? Everyone will work five times as hard to prove they shouldn't get the noose? It would be very funny if not for the seriousness of the outcome for those that go.

RudHud
RudHud

Nobody ever does any of these things. Just ask them. But if you've ever said, "He (or she) is not a team player," you've almost certainly shot a messenger.

drowningnotwaving
drowningnotwaving

... so yes, if you were to send this to your manager framed as "look what we think you do wrong" in an email, that may be considered bad. I think the point isn't US versus THEM in the original post, it's more about WHAT AM I DOING to keep morale high. In my experience, the 'bad apple' is more usually a team member than a manager, and they can bring everyone down just as fast. I've been that bad apple, at times, both as a team member and a manager. That's my interpretation of the message, anyway.

NexS
NexS

Bad for you? No, it'll boost your life satisfaction (way cooler than job satisfaction)! Bad for you, professionally? Depends if they realise that you're telling them how crap they are.... But, hopefully, they could be like Dilbert's manager....

mcswan454
mcswan454

I'm not going to ask the question I had on reading this post. M.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

I used to work at a heavy manufacturing company. Steel was everything. Computers were nothing. I was often told, "it's just a little programming. What's the big deal?" Finally, I learned to reply "The deflection with no sensors is the problem. Just build a rigid frame. Fix the deflection. What's the big deal?" It took a while, but they got the message eventually... ;-)

TexasJetter
TexasJetter

Just remind them that without you there would be no email, internet, files couldn't be found, etc. You are the enabler for the office to get things done ;)

Carlitosway0
Carlitosway0

Management in my work environment conducts 8 out of 10 of these... I know.... so hard to change personalities

AllenT_z
AllenT_z

Schedule long meetings when there is no need. Where I worked before I retired the programming manager scheduled a daily meeting that lasted usually about an hour and a half. The subject of each meeting was invariably "why are you behind on your project?" She had not a clue that those long meetings were the main cause of delays. Allen in Texas

BlueCollarCritic
BlueCollarCritic

#11) Don't Contradict Your Self EX: Tell your employess to be thorough and detailed but then freak out because you overlooked something they provided that was important and that you didn't catch because you didn't want to take the time to read what you requested. Remember when you have to err on one side or the other, too little info can cause great mistakes where as too much (I'm not talkking complete internet too much either) simply means you may have to take a little more time to review it but at least you are unlikley to not get some key info. #12) Don't ASSUME The reason should be obvious but it is still often over looked/ignored. I love it when someone in charge tells you just do it and doesn;t tell you how they want it and then its on you because you didn't read tehir mind. Wars have been started over this kind of thing and still people in supervisory positions believe everyone thinks like them and so no details are needed.

minstrelmike
minstrelmike

That's what I warn my kids about, now that they are getting into the work world. I feel as an analyst, I have an a somewhat 'fiduciary' duty to tell my managers and higher bosses when an idea will fail. Almost always, I am told I am not a team player. Fiduciary means you put the client's needs ahead of your own. Speaking up is morally correct but presents a continual danger to any career advancement because folks in mgmt generally move on without examining why their great project actually failed to solve any significant business problem.

RudHud
RudHud

Didn't mean to attach my reply to your's -- it's either a glitch in Tech Republic's software, or a glitch in my brain.

JTB2468
JTB2468

Around here, the managers do all but about 3 of these. It's a sad state of affairs, and is why most employees last less than 3 months here. Also, if you aren't a manager then you can't micromanage.

Joe-Swanson
Joe-Swanson

Meetings with multiple teams because managers can't be bothered to meet separately. I am all in favor of a (rare) get together to make sure everyone is on the same page, but often it's just that the manager needs a status update and doesn't want to get with the different teams. e.g. in a scenario where there are four eight person teams they will tie up 32 people for a couple of hours rather than go to four meetings.

lppsguay
lppsguay

Agreed - most employers will forgive error and mistake, even as a constant, but disagree with a statement, plan or policy, and be proven right (even once) is a sure career stopper - the one truly unforgiveable crime against the organization!

drowningnotwaving
drowningnotwaving

but, like all potential criticism, I share with most people the tendency to think that the criticism is aimed at someone else, not me! :) I'm not sure about your 'micromanage' concept - I've seen and been bashed up by other colleagues who felt the need to micromanage on an hourly basis. Usually the one pissed off for not being made manager. Just me, perhaps.

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