Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Influence

How to Improve Employee Morale

Dear David,

How do you suggest a large institution go about changing a can’t-do attitude to a can-do attitude when morale is low? We’ve had budget and staffing cuts and have a history of “silos” throughout the organization. Can you help?

Salvaging What I Can

Dear Salvaging,

You’re taking on a challenging and worthy goal. If you can improve morale, you will not only improve performance but also change lives. And don’t believe you are attempting the impossible. We’ve seen and been a part of many of these positive turnarounds.

I don’t know your institution, your industry, your history, or your competitive environment. This lack of information means my suggestions will have to be fairly general. The good news is that they will be relevant to a wide range of readers.

I’ll take an outside-in approach, first looking for barriers that impede the culture, and then at motivators that could pull the institution in the right direction.

Begin by Addressing Barriers

This is the most efficient place to start, because removing a small number of demotivating obstacles can release a flood of positive energy. Conversely, if you allow barriers to remain, they generate negative stories, rumors, and beliefs. People imagine the worst and begin to question leaders’ motives.

Conduct a Listening Tour

Bring together a group of decision-makers and have them conduct listening tours. Ideally, this group will include formal and informal (opinion) leaders from across the institution. The first goal of the tour is to identify patterns of problems that span regions and silos. The second goal is to position leaders as listeners, as people who want to understand and remove barriers.

Ask each leader to conduct both one-on-one interviews and focus groups. A few guidelines: have the leaders interview people who don’t report to them—people from other silos or regions. Give the leaders a bit of training, so they use the interviews to genuinely listen and learn, rather than lecture and solve problems. Have each leader conduct four to five one-hour interviews and participate in at least two ninety-minute focus groups.

Create Public Problem-Solving Rituals

I like a modified version of GE’s ritual, the Work-Out. Select a key barrier you discovered during your listening tour—a barrier that spans silos, impacts a lot of people, and is particularly demotivating. Bring together the decision-makers who can take positive action and have them discuss and solve it in a time-limited workshop or series of workshops, while a larger group of stakeholders observes. The goal is to get problems solved in a way that demonstrates responsive and decisive leadership. By calling this a “ritual” I’m suggesting that these Work-Outs become a regular, ongoing part of your institution.

Create Systems for Information Gathering

A listening tour is a great way to kick off a change, but lasting change requires a way to systematize the process. You need a way for people to voice their concerns in a positive way, or they will voice them instead as negative, self-defeating stories. One method that works is to schedule regular, perhaps quarterly, focus groups with opinion leaders from across your institution. Use these meetings to surface concerns that haven’t been solved through your regular channels.

Magnify Existing Motivators

Reinforce the connections that already motivate people within your institution. This means examining the purposes that motivate your workforce and improving the connections between their daily jobs and these purposes. We find it’s helpful to group purposes into the following five categories:

  • Themselves and their Loved Ones. People can find meaning in their ability to earn the necessities and pleasures of life. They take pride in providing for their loved ones and themselves. For example, the sales clerk who invests extra effort because she has children at home who count on her.
  • Customers and their Impact on the World. People can find meaning in the impact their work has on their customers and the broader world. They take pride in accomplishing their organization’s mission. For example, the nurse who achieves fulfillment through the impact he has on patients’ lives.
  • Organization and Team. People can find meaning in their working relationships, team, and organization. They take pride in being an important player on a winning team. For example, the case officer who sees herself as a key member of a highly reliable team.
  • Development and Personal Growth. People can find meaning in their personal growth and development. They take pride in their ability to take on new responsibilities and advance their career. For example, the engineer who masters new programs and systems or takes on new responsibilities to manage projects or people.
  • Tasks and Profession. People can find meaning in the activities that make up their job or profession. They experience the joy that comes with mastering their craft. For example, the teacher who loves being in the classroom, or the chef who loves to cook.

As leaders, our goal is to make these connections as clear and fulfilling as possible. Ideally, employees experience tight connections to all five of these values.

As you work to foster these connections, begin by looking for the values that have the weakest and the strongest connections. Sometimes an incident or event can cause people to lose connection to a value. Look for ways to rebuild it. Often, one of the connections is strong but could be stronger. Look for ways to strengthen it.

Strengthening these connections can take several forms. Generally, you want to make the connections easier for people to see and experience, as well as find ways to remind them of those connections during trying times.

Consider as an example the following short video. Imagine a workforce that’s under a lot of stress, juggling a lot of tasks, and not always succeeding. Now add that people’s lives are on the line. “Thanks For Trying” was created to remind employees of the positive impact they have—even when they fail.

I’d love to hear what others have done to improve morale across an institution.

Best of luck,

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

3 thoughts on “How to Improve Employee Morale”

  1. Abby Yanow

    Great post David, and very moving video. I’m curious about your suggestion for the GE Work-Out, having the stakeholders observe the decision makers discussing how to address problems. I’m be inclined to include the stakeholders in the conversation which creates buy-in and collaboration. Any reason you wouldn’t include them? thanks.

  2. David Maxfield

    I agree that the stakeholders need to be involved. My caution is to make sure it’s clear who owns the decision rights–who has responsibility for making the final decision. The senior team needs to determine whether the decision will be a Command, a Consult, a Consensus, or a Vote. I suggest a Consult, where input is gathered from stakeholders, but the decision makers make the final decision. The Consult process can take several forms: It could begin with an open discussion that involves all stakeholders, followed by a decision by the decision makers. Or it could be a discussion among just the decision makers, but with multiple breaks to get wider input and reactions from stakeholders. What do you think would work best?

  3. How to boost up Employee Morale? – VitalSmarts India

Leave a Reply