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The Morale Myth
by David & Lorrie Goldsmith

Why is it that no matter what you do to boost morale, from parties and picnics to pats on the back, you end up with the same short-lived results? You know, everyone's happy for a couple of weeks, then they default to heel dragging and excuse making again? If you're banging your head against the wall looking for new tactics, the only guarantee is a sore head. Here's why. Traditional tactics address symptoms, not causes of low morale. Look to mechanics rather than people when seeking solutions.

Employees want to feel good about the work they output. Most want to excel and see hope for advancements in position and pay. But when they're always swimming against the current, they lose hope. As a leader, your role is to equip employees with the right tools to do their jobs well. Functional equipment and systems breed success and maintain hope. Sometimes management tries to make everyone happy without really addressing what's causing unhappiness to begin with. The mistake is more common than people realize.

Vermont's Sugarbush ski resort suffered low morale at its ski school a couple of seasons ago. When parents came to sign in their children for daily classes, they could expect to wait at least an hour in long, winding-out-the-door lines. Management directed employees to use the lengthy Disney-Magic-Moment approach to greeting customers: how's your stay and how's your life. Overheating under a bazillion layers of ski clothing, sweat-soaked kids whined and wailed about the uncomfortable wait. Tempers flared. Irritated parents and frantic employees clashed, using words so colorful they'd have burned a sailor's ears. To alleviate congestion, management solicited "group think" from employees. Frazzled, the well-meaning workers spit out ideas like expand the size of the facility and buy faster computers. When in doubt, make a bigger place to house even more angry customers…yeah, right. Good intentions, wrong solutions.

One afternoon, some outside help pointed leadership in the right direction. Solutions emerged when simple questions were asked. By late afternoon, management and staff began restructuring procedures. They didn't leave until 2:00 the next morning. Here were the questions they asked:
  1. "What do our customers really want?" A skier's "Magic Moment" happens outside, on the slopes. Check 'em in and move 'em out like cattle. That meant reworking the ticketing and check-in systems to expedite the process and get adults outside fast. Forms were filled out at stations before customers got in line. The fastest-working employees were put on the front lines. Trainees worked at slower times.
  2. "How can we further reduce congestion?" Many people who were waiting in line wanted services unrelated to the ski school. Management stood at the doors to redirect non-ski-school customers to other buildings. Those seeking season's passes, rentals, and adult lessons comprised nearly 25% of the people clogging up the check-in lines.
  3. "How can we direct the flow of people more smoothly?" Too often, people entered (or re-entered) via exit doors. They interrupted check-in employees with unrelated questions, added to confusion, and slowed the process. By removing outside handles on exit doors, no one could sneak in. Anyone entering the building would have to get past the gate-keeping management team guarding the main door.
Even though the sky was overcast and the wind chill factor drove temperatures below zero, the sun shone in the Sugarbush ski school that same day. These few changes shortened wait time from over an hour to less than 10 minutes per customer. Common-sense systems and procedures resulted in happier customers and employees.

So what can you do to get started? Here are some places to look:
  1. Check the toolbox. Are you asking subordinates to fix a leaky roof with a sledgehammer? Frustration erupts when there's a gap between what's expected and what's achievable.
  2. Be a matchmaker. Do you have qualified, competent employees assigned to the right positions? Do the positions meet the skills of the available work force? Should the position be human-filled or automated?
  3. Get in sync. Do your systems enable employees to meet customers' needs? Remember skiers didn't want to wait in a bigger building, they wanted to glide through the check-in process and hit the slopes. Find out what customers want. Then use the info as a basis for strategies and tactics. Realize also that customers don't always know what they want: it's your job to know.
  4. If you're the lead dog, get out front. Are you creating a better mousetrap, or are employees constantly thrown into problem-solving exercises? Input creates buy-in, but too much is a burden. Employees want management to plan, direct and lead.
  5. Mirror, mirror on the wall… Are employee complaints repetitive? Have you listened to or ignored feedback? Maybe you're the problem.
  6. Walk a mile in their shoes. Have you ever performed an employee's job for a few days? You may find that you're expecting him to complete jobs that are unclear, work with tools that are broken or slow, and perform with inconsistent direction. You control the checkbook and can fix problems on the spot.
  7. Thrill seeking on the job? If you're always trying something new to keep things interesting, cut it out. People like a change of pace…sometimes. But too much change creates stress. Build good systems and save the adventures for vacation.
Mass mental sludge is a symptom of dysfunctional systems and equipment or lagging employee skills. Morale won't improve long-term if your aim is to cheer up people. Keep a sharp lookout for real issues plaguing employees to improve morale and give your headache the sendoff.

Copyright David and Lorrie Goldsmith. All Rights Reserved.

David and Lorrie Goldsmith are managing partners of their own consulting group. Their firm offers consulting and speaking services internationally. David was named by Successful Meetings Magazine as one of the "26 Hottest Speakers in the Industry." Jeff Gitomer say’s "David Goldsmith is unique in that he can see a 30,000 feet view of business and then delivers the hand-to-hand tools for combat."

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