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Morale in the workplace: It’s up to managers and employees

By John Ramirez, dean of operations, College of Doctoral Studies, University of Phoenix, USA CSM (Ret.)


All business leaders know the signs of low morale—employees are apathetic, tardy, often absent, performing poorly and high rates of turnover. Low morale can result in decreased collaboration, cooperation and commitment. In my 27 years in the Army, I learned that low morale is a symptom of an organization in crisis. It can cripple an organization, preventing it from accomplishing its mission.

Yet, getting to the root of the problem requires some careful reflection, as low morale can be the result of a combination of things, including ineffective management, ambiguity, lack of resources and training, poor communication, and lack of mission clarity. The truth is it starts with leadership.

Let me explain by sharing a story. As Brigade Command Sergeant Major, I was responsible for the health and welfare of the enlisted soldiers in our brigade. Once, I was sent to a battalion that was experiencing low morale. It didn’t take long to learn why. When I mentioned that I found the color of the paint in a barracks hallway interesting, the Battalion Sergeant Major made the soldiers stay up all night repainting the walls. He didn’t bother to ask me what I meant by my comment; he made an assumption. That sergeant major was more interested in trying to pander to me than leading his soldiers.

That experience has guided me throughout my military career and carries over into my now 16 years at University of Phoenix. I may have been the senior non-commissioned officer in a brigade of 3,000 soldiers, but I was not entitled to anything. A title is just a title. It is not leadership. Leadership is about action and how your subordinates see you, respect you and understand from you the mission and their role in it.

The responsibility of senior leaders

The primary responsibility of senior leaders is to create and support an environment in which employees feel the organization has a vested interest in its workforce and a genuine care and concern for their well-being. That means ensuring employees are well-informed, highly trained, equipped with the tools and resources to perform their duties, and are led by skilled, competent and confident leaders.

Senior leaders must ensure transparency, communicate specific mission objectives and goals, and set clear and concise expectations of junior leaders and their subordinates. They must also ensure they create a work environment in which employees feel safe enough to share concerns or grievances free of retribution and trusted by their leaders to do what is right in the absence of direct supervision.

Morale is up to employees, too

Employees also play a role in the culture of an organization and its morale. Employees must master their craft, know their role in the organization, and what is expected of them, and know their impact on the stakeholders they serve. They must have the confidence in themselves, their team members, and their leaders.

Employees must also be self-aware and know that everybody is watching, peers and leaders alike. As a member of a team, it is the employee’s obligation to pull their fair share, work toward common goals, and when in the absence of the leader be prepared to take on the leadership role. Employees must be prepared to assist a peer, to share best practices, or provide additional training or resources to help them be successful.

Employees also play a part in recognizing stellar performance by other members of the team and celebrating team achievements. Recognizing a team member’s performance serves as a reminder that their efforts are important to the team, and it fuels the team to greater success. When necessary, and in a professional manner, employees must be prepared to call out members not performing to standard, especially those who have been trained and are capable.

Together, leaders and employees can change the culture of an organization and impact the morale of the entire workforce.

John Ramirez is dean of operations for the College of Doctoral Studies, University of Phoenix, and a retired US Army command sergeant major. During his distinguished 27-year military career, Ramirez held numerous leadership positions and was selected as one of the “Top Hispanic Leaders” in the Army.