Work Morale and Engagement Killers: Let’s Not Take Away One of the Few Advantages We Have Left!

Let’s start by looking at some basics of the international competitive position in which western industrial countries find themselves:  can the US, the UK and Europe compete worldwide on cost?  Of course not, in most cases.  This is why whole industries have disappeared or radically downsized, such as steel, garment manufacturing, shoe manufacturing, auto manufacturing, etc.  How can we compete when the average Chinese manufacturing worker receives $134/month and the average US worker $2370 (source:  CBS News, February 16th 2010)?   Can we compete on skills?  Theoretically yes but witness the wave of outsourcing, even reaching into the medical sphere, whereby a mammogram image is whisked via high speed Internet to Bangalore, read by an expert radiologist there at a fraction of US costs, written up and whisked back to the US in time for the opening of the doctor’s office the next day.  Or look at Elance, where even self employed individuals can outsource web site design, etc. for dramatic savings compared to their western resources.  Can we compete on innovation?  Yes but how quickly can our competitors copy what we have invented?   Can we compete on speed of execution?  Yes in some cases, but again, with the telecom revolution exemplified by the mammogram example above, geography has shrunk.  This does not leave much with which the western industrial countries can compete: quality certainly but that can change (look at how Japan went from perceived low quality to best in class across all sorts of things, especially autos, Toyota’s recent troubles notwithstanding.  Maybe China and India can do the same but on a much larger scale?)

However, there is one thing on which we can always compete and which wont be taken away from us if we wake up and do things right: our people, their drive, their enthusiasm, their desire to get the job done. In other words, their morale and engagement.  Given how limited our options are, therefore, can we afford for anything in our organizations to undermine one of the few advantages which we can leverage?  Of course not.  Yet many organizations allow just that. 

To see what I am talking about lets look at the morale killers, as I like to call them.  You can think of them as engagement killers too, since the latter is a by product of morale.

–Lets start with the dinosaur of morale killers, the “boss from hell”; he or she (this is an equal opportunity creature, as The Devil Wears Prada demonstrated) can really ruin even the best intentioned and most enthusiastic worker’s morale.  Even worse, as my book pointed out, he/she can have lethal (I used that word carefully and correctly) effects on employee health.  The “boss from hell” is always my first pick as a morale killer because that is mostly where high morale and engagement are created or destroyed: at that crucial meeting point of the worker and the organization, as represented by the boss.

The weak boss:  next we have the boss who isn’t from hell but goes to endless seminars (even ones on morale), comes back with all the buzz words, but nothing seems to change.   Failure to implement is a sign that he/she lacks the courage to do so,  lacks the willingness to override his own ego, or works in an environment which makes his efforts difficult and is not willing to fight against that. 

–The disgruntled worker:  this is the proverbial bad apple who is allowed to fester within a barrel of good ones.  In other words it comes back again to management.  This individual would be disgruntled even if he had a job on the beach at Club Med with his own comfortable ocean front cabaña to live in and a modest number of canoes to rent.  He would complain about his TV not having enough channels.  These types of people, when not handled correctly (using by “separating from them” as one of my ex clients used to say), erode the morale of their team, especially when they share equally in team rewards which they in no way deserve. 

–The toxic culture (“way of doing things”):  since culture precedes all appearances of high morale and engagement, and makes it possible for that to exist, we cannot ignore the fact that no matter how well intentioned people might be in some organizations, the cards are stacked against them.  Often found to contain many “bosses from hell” (which it sees as great people), the toxic culture has many different forms.  Such cultures are often based on the personality and past experiences of so called “leaders”, who bring their baggage with them and essentially have everyone in the organization carry it.

–The dysfunctional culture:  not necessarily toxic, but also not functioning in a way which would create a high morale environment, these organizations are often run by people who lack two of the crucial elements of leadership: courage and vision. These people really have no idea their workforce is the bedrock of the organization’s success, not the great strategy which they have dreamed up or what clever tricks they can play financially.  Maybe they play lip service to “putting people first” but it is a shallow commitment, not backed up by the heart and soul needed to really make that happen.  Maybe they also pay themselves handsomely while contributing poorly to performance, a sure fire morale killer which I have covered elsewhere.

Of course there are many other situations which kill morale and engagement; and there are many organizations which have those above.  Otherwise why is it that every time I meet someone and tell them I work in the area of morale at work, I always get the same response:

You should come to my place!!

This is NOT because things are so great, it’s more a cry for help, and it happens almost every time.  Think of the implications of this, in the context of what I said at the beginning of this post.  Can we afford to be this way?  Can we continue to have only 29% of US workers “engaged” (Gallup)?  Can we afford to be only average (UK, US) or below average in morale (France, Germany, etc.) on a worldwide basis?  The answer to this question is going to determine how we live in the future because morale and engagement are THE performance drivers we really can control and improve.  Think about that if you are in a leadership position, someone complains about a “boss from hell”, and you are tempted to say, “That’s just Bob”.  No its not.

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  1. Hi David. Wow – this is an interesting post that caught my eye and got my brain wheels spinning.

    You list the things we can’t compete against: cost, speed, innovation and skills.

    You then say that we can, however, compete on people – more specifically, on their morale and engagement.

    Unless I’m mistaken, conventional wisdom says that high morale and employee engagement lead to performance improvement… typically by increasing a business’s capacity to reduce costs, get faster at doing things, respond innovatively to the market and become more skilled.

    Now, unless there’s an alternative market in which high employee engagement and morale are an irresistible benefit to the customer in their own rights, then the implication in what you’re saying here is that we can convert engagement and morale in to a level of performance improvement capable of making our products and services competitive against the Indian and Chinese competition.

    Do you envisage a market that values happy, engaged employees more than it values low costs, skills, speed and innovation? Or do you believe we can create such high engagement and morale in our people that they will outperform the Indian and Chinese competition in terms of er… cost, speed, skills and innovation?

    The uncomfortable truth here is that in a global market you can’t compete on cost with overseas companies paying 1/20th or less of the labour costs that you’re paying. But it’s no wonder that our workforces feel demoralised and demotivated when they hear us talking about engagement and morale as a way to increase their ‘efficiency’ and productivity to close what they already know is an unclosable gap.

  2. Sam, yes I think if we excel at engaging our people we at least have a chance. If we let morale be eroded, we will destroy one of our few competitive edges. Not cost, of course not. But I personally have not given up on the innovative potential of engaged workforces, or (contrary to what you say) the huge customer satisfaction benefits which those people generate. Nor have I given up on productivity gains or on having more fun at work.

    I think this is a good time to have this discussion, during this Europe crisis: Greece is only the first up to bat, as it faces the reality that it cannot keep its peoples’ standard of living up without sucking in cheap Euros. Britain and Spain are next up. The US not far behind. All this is because we are in denial about the competitive threat and its effect on our lifestyles. We borrow to put off the day of reckoning.

    I am not pessimistic, I think we can make it. But what about you? What is the selling proposition to your potential clients, the hard nosed ones who ask you “why should I get involved in this engagement thing?” You never mention productivity and profits to them? I do, along with improved worker health, higher customer satisfaction, the list goes on and on. What concerns me is typical European reaction to engagement, that its just another way to screw people even more, that’s its all a benefit to the organization, I don’t buy that: engaged workers in an organization which merits it feel better every single day at work and they are healthier. They enjoy coming to work. They are not “victims” of being engaged.

    You say that our workers are “demoralised” because people like us are telling them engagement will make them more productive? I don’t have a problem telling them that, but I don’t start there: there are so many benefits to them personally which I can share. Can you imagine becoming more productive and having more fun, at the same time? Google can, that’s why they have such great food on campus, the CEO said “we don’t want them to leave, we want them to work hard here all day”. Do you have a problem with that? Even better that, as workers receive those individual benefits which engagement brings, their organization has a chance to survive, even thrive. Don’t you think they will benefit further from that? Most workers have a lot more reasons than what we consultants talk about, to be “demoralised”! How about the Great Recession, layoffs, unfair CEO and top management pay and benefit levels, constant threats of outsourcing, global competition and just constant and uncomfortable change. Now the escalating government debt crisis in Europe.

    Are you telling me that workers are not grown up enough to hear that unless we get more productive and work better together, we wont make it? You make it sound as if they cant handle that information. Want to see a really “demoralised” and “disengaged” workforce? That’s one which has lost all its jobs to overseas competition because everyone, management and workers, was too selfish, too wedded to past practices, too unwilling to break the mold to create true engagement together. Most people would swap that fate for a “profitable” and “productive” place to work.

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