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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.

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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.


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

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