Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 213
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Improving Morale

A simple plan with a big payoff.

Here's a puzzle for you: You hire two employees for roughly identical jobs: same work, same pay, insurance benefits, hours, supervision, working conditions, company policies, and so on. One employee is happy, while the other one isn't. Why?

Here's another puzzle: You hire an employee who appears to be happy, but as time passes, this happiness varies a great deal. Some weeks he seems happy, while other weeks he seems unhappy. Why? The hours don't change, pay stays the same . . . what's going on?

"Who cares?" you say. Well, you should.

When you go to your business you'll find that satisfied, happy employees are a pleasure to work with, but dissatisfied, unhappy employees not only are miserable to be around, they also pose a serious threat to your business. Unhappiness infects others, and it leads to turnover. Your investment in your people can walk right out the door and suddenly make you aware of your dependence upon your employees' skills, knowledge, and energy to keep your business profitable. It's a vulnerability most business owners and managers guard carefully.

Vernon Quarstein, a management professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, studies employee morale, and he recently tested his ideas in two studies with young, employed adults. He described his findings in a recent research article, and he made suggestions employers can use to improve employee morale. Here's the story.

Quarstein recognized two factors crucial to employee satisfaction and morale. The first he called "situational characteristics," and you know all about these: pay, working conditions, and so on. These are the characteristics you list in your help-wanted ads.

The second factor you know all about too, but Quarastein believes you ignore it. He calls these "situational occurrences," and examples include the grime around the door knob of your front entrance door (the handle everyone must grasp to enter), the empty paper tray in the photocopy machine everyone ignores, rude comments that sour an otherwise pleasant afternoon, empty paper towel dispensers, no soap, dim or burned out light bulbs, parking problems, and on and on.

These, of course, are all negative examples. They are annoyances. Applicants don't bring up these factors in their employee interviews, and they probably wouldn't impact a new-hire's morale, that is, until they started to build up.

Employees react quickly and vocally to situational characteristics. Give someone a big raise in pay, and you can watch them float out of your office on a cloud. But if you lower people's pay, you'd better stand back and protect your head. The explosion that follows will rock your business.

With situational occurrences, it's different. If you move a larger refrigerator into the break room, then most people will say nothing about it at all. A brighter light bulb on the back stairs and new paint in the bathroom may also bring out nothing. And if the bulb burns out, or the old paint peels, or if the old refrigerator needs defrosting, and no one will do it, then you'll still probably hear nothing at all.

This silence is deceptive. Quarstein found that the presence of situational occurrences that annoy employees negatively impacts employee morale. Conversely, the presence of situational occurrences that please people positively impacts employee morale. The impact is large and consistent, and it's much more pronounced for women than it is for men.

Management is a very personal profession. "Manager" is who we are, and if morale is poor, if people are unhappy and react poorly to us and to their jobs, then it's pretty depressing for us, too. And when grumbling begins to alarm us, we may also try expensive changes in "big" factors, like raises, fringe benefits, and time off. But spending large sums to improve morale and failing in the effort is pretty depressing too. Quarstein's research suggests this is a very real possibility . . . that the root of the problem lies with situational occurrences rather than situational characteristics.

Professor Quarstein has a suggestion: ask your employees to keep a list of small annoyances they encounter over a 3-day period and return the lists to you. Go through the lists and fix as many items as you can as quickly as you can. Quarstein believes employee morale will improve. If you make it a routine, for example, once a year, then you'll put in place a mechanism to regularly improve morale, and that's just good management.

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