The morale of our people is just terrible," the CTO of a government agency recently confided in me. "What can I do about it?" he asked.
I'm sure that he's not alone. Hit by deep layoffs over the past few years, some workplaces look as if they are populated by the walking dead. Many survivors feel overwhelmed just keeping the existing systems running, and there's nothing new or exciting on the horizon to look forward to.
What's a manager to do?
First, you need to be more articulate about the emotional state of your people. Saying that a group has low morale is mostly identifying what the group is not -- meaning, positively engaged with their work. But there are many different types of groups in this category, including these:
• Passively disengaged. People in these groups are listless and lack drive. They have no enthusiasm for anything and are often driven by fear.
• Actively repelled. Groups of actively repelled employees are more energetic, but they're animated by hostilities they harbor toward their manager, rival factions, the organization or the universe.
• Passionately destructive. These groups are made up of people who aren't demotivated at all. They're actually highly motivated -- by rage. Think terrorists.
What to Do
Strategies for dealing with each type differ.
The last first: For the passionately destructive, eradication is the only effective approach. You can't reason with the enraged. Luckily, in a work setting, only a few people generally drive the anger, and eradicating them will tone down the group to the point where it's merely hostile.
For the actively repelled, you need to find the source of their anger. They will tell you of specific grievances, but don't accept those at face value. The things that people feel safe to talk about rarely represent the full story. Look for themes. Something with deeper resonance underlies those vocalized concerns. For example, someone who says he feels underpaid might really feel unfairly treated or unappreciated. Look for the emotions, not just the facts. If you can't address the source of the anger, you need to at least acknowledge it openly and make it a safe topic for discussion.
With the passively disengaged, you need to assess your own emotional reaction to their feelings. The people you manage resonate with your emotions. Are you incredulous, feeling that they should be grateful to have jobs, quit griping and get to work? If so, they're likely to respond with incredulity of their own, and feel that you are rejecting, rather than acknowledging, their feelings.
Do you respond with a feeling of helplessness, wondering what they want from you? If so, they will feel even more helpless than they already do. In times of uncertainty, they are looking for clarity, and if you can't provide it, they will look elsewhere.
Do you respond with determination, declaring that you all have a job to do regardless of the circumstances? In that case, your people will either join in with your determination, or they will completely reject your interpretation of reality. There's rarely much in between. Your enthusiasm will either be infectious or repellent.
The key to managing low morale lies in understanding both yourself and the group and thinking carefully about how to walk your people back from where they are to where you'd like them to be.
Paul Glen is a consultant who helps technical organizations improve productivity through leadership, and the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks (Jossey-Bass, 2003). You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.