How to Keep Your Team Engaged When You Have Low Morale at Work

At many companies, low morale is a fact of life. Any number of problems can stifle people, leaving them unmotivated and struggling to do their job.

As a manager, you may feel low morale yourself; no one is immune to the harsh realities of the modern workplace.

Gallup’s engagement stats show us year after year that little is changing. On average, two of every three people are not engaged at work.

low morale seems to be a fact of life for many as gallup shows

What can you do about it?

It’s easy to feel helpless in one of these bad work situations. In fact there’s a term for when you lose hope: learned helplessness.

However, today is about what you can do to make a difference.

Remember: As a leader or manager of any kind, you can make things better for those around you.  It’s one of our all time favorite quotes from the legendary leader, author, and former CEO of Intel, Andy Grove:

andy grove knows what it takes to fight low morale

So whether you’re thinking about leaving yourself, or you see low morale in your department, here’s what you can do to make a difference for you and your team.

5 Ways to Keep Your Team Engaged When You Have Low Morale at Work

Below are suggestions, data, and tactics you can try with your team. Every situation is unique, so your mileage may vary. However, there’s a good chance some of these will make a bigger difference than you might expect.

talk about the elephant in the room: low morale

1) Talk about the elephants, and why you’re staying

Some of the most dangerous things that can undermine a good team are the things that go unsaid. As a manager, you have to get comfortable having difficult and uncomfortable conversations.

Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar Animation Studios wrote in Creativity, Inc on the value of candor in management:

“Candor isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves.”

There are few bigger elephants in the room for a manager than you and your team members being unhappy and thinking about leaving.

One elephant that is even bigger though is death. Sheryl Sandberg wrote about dealing with her husband’s death, where no one knew what to say or how to help her. So she tackled it head on.  As she wrote in a poignant public Facebook post:

“Once I addressed the elephant, we were able to kick him out of the room.”

Kick the elephant out of the room.

There’s a few things you can do to tackle the sticky issue of low morale and people thinking about quitting or interviewing elsewhere.

First, you can be honest about your situation. Share a bit about what you’ve found challenging and heard from others on the team. If you’ve thought about leaving, they probably have too, so if you have trust in your relationship you can be frank there.

It can also help to just let them vent. In many cases, people just want to feel heard.

If you’re lucky you might even hear something that is within your control.  At that, point you can do something about it to help them.

You may be surprised how much even small wins and progress can help them feel better about their job and boost morale.

Most importantly, by talking about this elephant in the room, you’re more likely to have your team member support you; if they end up leaving, you may need their help finding and training a replacement, or need them to help you with more than the standard 2 weeks notice.

career growth is always a crowd pleaser

2) Help with their career growth

We talk about the value and importance of career discussions often on the Lighthouse blog. And for good reasons:

Even when your company is struggling, or simply has morale issues despite it growing, you can and should still look to grow your people.

In addition to the above benefits, in particular it can help in low morale situations in a few key ways:

  1. Improve retention: Progress on their career and skills can give them enough reason to stay while bigger morale issues are fixed across the company.
  2. Strengthen your team: When morale is low, it’s harder to recruit people to your teams. A depressed workplace can be felt when a candidate walks in. Improving the team you have is the fastest way to improve performance for you now.
  3. Help their career: If you and/or they end up leaving, your investment in their growth and development gives them another bullet point or two for their resumes, which can be huge long term for their career or future interviews.
low morale can come from a lack of progress
Making progress on their career can improve low morale

How do I grow them?

Helping your people grow can be easier than you think.  Start with a conversation and then look for any ways to make incremental improvement.

First, you need to identify the area to help them improve.

If they have a certain next career move they want to make, then focus on the skills you feel they would need to improve to get that job here or somewhere else.

Consider what would make a good talking point in an interview, or bullet point on their resume. Help them do those things now. You may want to privately even frame them this way to your team member to tap into further motivation for them.

Meanwhile, if they’re just getting into their current level or role, then you as manager should be their coach; take a larger look at their work and look for strengths to enhance and weaknesses to mitigate or work on. Consider their Task Relevant Maturity for their responsibilities and be more hands on in those areas.

Looking for more help and tactics on growth for your team?

good praise can brighten a day of low morale

3) Praise and recognize what you can

Researchers curious about the workplace have long questioned what separates great teams from average and poor ones.  One difference turns out to be praise.

In research published in the American Behavioral Scientist, researchers Heaphy and Losada, found:

“The factor that made the greatest difference between the most and least successful teams was the ratio of positive comments to negative comments…

The average ratio for the highest-performing teams was 5.6… The medium-performance teams averaged 1.9… But the average for the low-performing teams, at 0.36 to 1, was almost three negative comments for every positive one.”

Think about your team. What do you think your ratio is? Try counting for a week and seeing what you find for yourself and your team.

low morale can be improved by giving feedback
How much of your team’s good work are you taking for granted?

Break the cycle.

One of the hardest parts about a workplace with low morale is everyone’s attitudes. You can cut the tension in the air with a knife.

When your office or team is like that, it’s easy to be more critical and negative.  Bad attitudes and poor treatment of one another becomes a self-reinforcing cycle of sadness and aggression. Don’t let that be your team.

The example you set is one of the most powerful tools you have as a leader.  It may be hard at first, but the payoff can be huge if you can start finding more ways to praise and positively reinforce your team.

As Dale Carnegie writes in How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.”

If anyone on your team does something great, let them hear it loud and clear. Take the time to recognize your unsung heroes. Ask your team who they think is going unrecognized or what work is most thankless.

Want more ideas for giving praise?

Low morale can challenge your loyalty

4) Demonstrate your loyalty to your team

One of the biggest mistakes bad leaders make is forgetting that loyalty is a two way street. Often, it is the worst of leaders who treat their people poorly, and then wonder why those same people are not loyal.

Be different. Earn their loyalty.

When things are difficult and you have low morale, it can be easy to become every person for themselves. Those kinds of politics serve no one.

If you instead continue to support and respect your team, you’ll earn their loyalty not just now but throughout their career. Play the long game.

low morale can be improved by making a grand gesture
Thoughtful actions like a nice dinner and other grand gestures can make a difference.

Make a grand gesture.

In addition to the smaller things we’ve described already, the occasional larger gesture can have a really big impact on your team. They will remember what you did for them during the good times, and especially the bad.

Here’s a few ideas we’ve seen work for ourselves and other leaders in difficult situations:

  • Stand up for your team in a significant way when it may be easier to “just go along with it.”
  • Fight for a key bonus or promotion for someone on your team particularly deserving.
  • Take your team and their spouses out for dinner to thank them for their hard work and sacrifices.

It’s amazing how often we hear stories from friends and readers alike how pivotal moments in their careers that they remember involve key actions by their managers to show loyalty to them.  What are you doing for your team?

low morale is about what you can do

5) Do what You can

When things are tough at work, it can be easy to get sucked into all the negativity.  You can feel helpless and hopeless, too.

Refocus your efforts on what you can do for your team. That mindset will get you through this whether any of you stay and things get better overall or not.

low morale can be improved by shielding your team

What can I really do?

You can make a bigger difference than you may realize. In addition to the tactics we’ve described already, a few things you can do:

  • Shield your team from things when possible and appropriate. (More on the nuance of this in point #5 here)
  • Look for ways to be a part of the solution by helping create changes that can help.
  • Put more effort into managing up so you can help your manager help you and your team, too.

A Story of Making Change

A friend of mine was in one of these situations a couple years ago.

The engineering organization was really frustrated by the processes that the company had set out for them. The product was also suffering because of it. My friend was thinking about leaving, as were many on their team.

He talked candidly with his team in their 1 on 1s about what he and they were both struggling with. Many admitted to interviewing for other jobs or considering it.

Rather than give up and leave, they did something about it.

Working with some of the other leaders in their group, they started working on making changes to what were the worst bottlenecks and frustrations for the team.

Slowly, things started to get better. The small changes gave people hope, and evidence for larger changes they needed senior leadership buy in for.

Thanks to their efforts and persistence, things are much better now. After 6 months of struggle, totally new processes are in place that removed the vast majority of problems. Product is shipping fast again, and people are staying and growing.

low morale can't stop you from having an impact on people's lives

Conclusion: You have more control over low morale than you think

The easy way out is to give up and be as unhappy as those around you. Instead, what great leaders do is step up and do what they can to make a difference.

Be a bright light in a dark time.

No matter what happens, the act of trying things can help your own psyche. It gives you hope that things could still get better; what you’re trying might work!

It also helps you make some incremental progress to improve things, which can help your own morale.

Most importantly, these efforts will be noticed by your team. It’s in these moments that you’ll earn their loyalty.

Then, where ever you go, your good people will follow their leader that took care of them in good times and bad.

Play the long game as a leader when you’re facing low morale, and you create a win-win scenario. Either you’re part of a major victory making things better, or you earn the respect and loyalty of your team who you’ll be able to work with again in the future.

The right discussion can unlock the insights to improve the morale and motivation of your team. Learn how to have them by using the Suggested Questions in Lighthouse.

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