This article originally appeared on our sister site, TechRepublic.
As the economy—and particularly the IT sector—continues to limp into 2003, morale on most of your teams is going to go down a bit, or possibly even into the toilet, if your company is considering layoffs or other drastic cost-cutting measures. Since most managers actually do want employees to enjoy their work, we tend to try “creative” ways to boost morale; who hasn’t gone on a work-sponsored trip to a bowling alley or brought a casserole to work for a feel-good potluck?
I can honestly say that I have never seen one of these well-intended pep rallies have any long-term impact on employee morale. You may snuff a few short fuses for a short while, but as long as the underlying problems are ignored, morale isn’t going to turn around. Employees want you to fix their problems; they can go bowling with their friends later.
I’ve often advised that in tough times like these, the secret to improving employee morale is to focus on some area where you can make a serious impact. I’m adding a new wrinkle to that advice—let your team pick a project that it thinks will make a difference in the quality of its work experience. Obviously, you can’t swing the doors wide open here, so you’ll have to do a little homework at the front end to keep the initiative from straying too far from key business goals. But with a little planning, you’re likely to have a winner on your hands. Your team will feel more invested in its work, and you’ll get the added benefit of a process improvement or cost savings.
Here are a few tactics I’ve found useful in setting up an employee-driven project. Most of them are just common sense and rely on you making an investment in the process that won’t be obvious to the casual observer. But then again, that’s your job.
Set some firm ground rules up front
Before you open the doors for your team to pick a project, determine a budget and timeline for the initiative. Closure is critical here, so let the team know that whatever you tackle, it will need to be wrapped up in six weeks or less—in tough times, some new priority is sure to come down the pike and bump anything that runs longer. And, of course, you aren’t going to have any real money to spend, so advise the team to think in terms of process improvement and efficiency that you can wring out of existing systems. No jumps to a Linux farm or any of the other grand schemes you’re likely to get from technophiles, since successful completion is an absolute imperative here. Otherwise, leave the door open; don’t rule out edgy suggestions to drop a status meeting or two or to just cut an albatross project that’s driving everybody crazy.
Make sure a solid project gets selected
Here’s the one place where you need to be a little Draconian—after all, you are still the manager. Have team members write up their suggestions in one- to two-page proposals and circulate them to the team for review. Hold a meeting where the team discusses the pros and cons of each proposal, and then help the team come to some consensus about which project to tackle. This will be a bit of a balancing act, since you don’t want to ram a project down your team’s throat. Lean toward pointing out roadblocks for proposals that just aren’t going to make it, and then let the team choose from the remaining options that meet the credibility bar. I strongly advise against anonymous proposals or voting for a winner—just talk it out and make the right decision as a group.
Push the project through the typical channels
Whatever project your team chooses, treat it as you would any other initiative. Discuss the project in regular status meetings and any update, cross-team contexts where your team’s typical work is an issue. In short, don’t treat the project like a skunkworks or a charming little managerial stunt—it’s a real and important piece of work, so get it done. That goes for the slack you cut your own guys for missed milestones, as well.
Stay involved, but don’t take the day-to-day reins
Pick a lieutenant or someone else you can trust to drive the team’s project to a successful conclusion. The team-selected project typically won’t be your unit’s top priority—if it is, you’ve got a whole other set of problems to address. Check on the project’s status as you typically would, but remember that giving your team a clear sense of ownership is a key goal of this exercise. So hands off, as much as possible.
Publicize your team’s success, and then do it again
At all costs, make sure your boss and peers know that your team members came up with the idea for your project, and when you hit your mark, give them all the credit, since they earned it. And based on what you learned with your initial experiment, launch another team-selected project within a few months.
Don’t get me wrong—I know all too well how hard it is to get grumpy or downright hostile employees to buy into anything new or different. And many front-line employees aren’t comfortable opening up themselves or their ideas for criticism, so the first round of a project like the one I’ve proposed will sometimes seem like pulling teeth. But if you keep your efforts simple and targeted, you’ll end up with an improved team dynamic and a few smart ideas to boot.