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Balancing act: To improve morale at work, remember to communicate

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 5 2013 8:30 a.m. MST

Thirty-three percent of human resources professionals in a recent survey said a lack of open, honest communication has the most negative impact on employee morale.

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During my years as a manager, I’ve found that some of the best employee morale-builders don’t require a large expenditure of company money.

In fact, when I think back on my time as a reporter, I can honestly state that the managers I liked the most weren’t necessarily the ones who offered lavish praise or gave me unexpected bonuses.

Then again, I worked in journalism. Both praise and bonuses were usually in extremely short supply, since editors are stereotypically crotchety and newspaper companies are notoriously cheap when it comes to paying their reporters.

But that’s beside the point, at least in this case. The editors I liked and respected most — the ones who kept my morale high and made me want to go to work every day — were the ones who were most honest and transparent in their communication.

One editor attended a weekly meeting with some of the other managers of the paper I worked for at the time. After every meeting, she would send an email to all the other city editors and reporters, letting them know what was discussed.

Much of that information was of only marginal interest, but I appreciated her willingness to share information. It made me feel like I was kept in the loop about the company’s plans. And it showed she was dedicated to the same kind of transparency we expected from the people we interviewed every day.

If good communication is a boon to workplace morale, it stands to reason that poor communication would be a drag on it, and that impression is confirmed in a new survey by specialized staffing company Accountemps.

The survey was conducted by an independent research firm, which interviewed more than 300 human resources managers at U.S. companies with 20 or more employees.

According to the results, 33 percent of those surveyed said a lack of open, honest communication had the most negative impact on employee morale. Another 18 percent cited micromanaging employees as having the most negative impact, followed by 15 percent who said failure to recognize employee achievements, 10 percent who said fear of job loss and 9 percent who said excessive workloads.

These results probably go against conventional wisdom, but they make sense to me.

I mentioned in previous columns that I’ve served as interim manager for an additional team at work during the last month or so. Also during that time, I’ve participated in the search for a permanent manager for the team.

While talking to members of that team about what they hoped for in their new manager, several of their responses indicated that good communication skills would be important. They were also adamant that they did not want their new boss to be a micromanager.

I’m fortunate that my boss fits this bill. He does a great job of keeping me informed about issues that could affect me or my team, and he gives me plenty of room to manage my group without trying to get his hands on every decision we make.

In turn, I try to work with my team in the same way. I do my best to keep them in the loop, and I stay out of their way as much as possible when it comes to the details of their jobs.

On the flip side of the Accountemps survey, when HR managers were asked to name the best remedy for low morale, 38 percent said communication, while 15 percent said monetary rewards for exceptional performance and 15 percent said recognition programs.

Another 13 percent cited unexpected rewards like gift certificates or tickets to sporting events, while 11 percent said team-building meetings or events and 6 percent said more days off.

Everyone loves unexpected bonuses or other gifts, but again, I can see why communication is the best morale booster.

So, how can a company improve communication and morale? The Accountemps press release about the survey offers five characteristics of low-morale organizations and how to remedy them:

• An active grapevine. When real communication is hard to get, gossip flourishes, the release indicates. “Even if you have bad news to share or don’t have all the answers, honesty is still the best policy. The more team members can rely on accurate information, the less grist they’ll have for the rumor mill.”

• Lack of initiative. Unmotivated employees don’t take “an active seat at the table,” the release says. Create an ownership environment that challenges employees to solve problems.

• Scarce rewards. Be sure to recognize employees’ efforts with “praise, low-cost awards and spot bonuses. Make rewards personal and give them as soon after an achievement as possible,” according to the release. And make sure you’re sincere, because your team will know if you’re not.

• Changes in attitude. Be on the lookout for increased negativity and absenteeism or reduced cooperation.

• Poor performance. This seems obvious, but morale problems usually become performance problems fairly quickly. If productivity is falling, it may be time to check your communication.

I like this advice. There’s nothing shocking here, but a basic commitment to open and honest communication goes a long way when it comes to building employee morale.

I’d be interested in your opinions on this, too. How important is communication to your morale at work? What are some examples from your past in which either good or bad communication affected your morale and, eventually, your team’s performance? What other tips would you offer to help managers improve communication with their teams?

Please leave a comment or send me an email, and I’ll share some of your ideas when I revisit this issue in a future column.

Email your comments to kratzbalancingact@gmail.com or post them online at deseretnews.com. Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.

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