What Does It Take to Boost Morale in Tough Times?

Discussion
Nov 05, 2013

Anyone playing a role in an organization of any kind knows how vital morale is to performance. There are stories, particularly around sports, in which the coach (e.g., Knute Rockne’s "Win one for the Gipper") lifts a team’s morale with inspirational words that lead to victory.

Slightly less cinematic, but more common, are organizations that are faced with ongoing adversity and the toll that takes on worker attitudes. Defeatism can spread across a group, particularly when its members constantly hear, read and see press reports that reinforce the profound challenges they face.

I was recently told a story about a coach’s message to a team that knew of pre-season polls predicting the squad would finish dead last. The team, which won a state championship just two years earlier, had seen many of the players associated with that success graduate. The coach recalled when he was a kid in grade school that his group of friends had come up with a ranking system of the best boxers in the class (the sport was very big in the age of Ali and Frazier). He was ranked last. One-by-one he defeated his opponents in their after-school bouts until he was recognized as the best within his small group. Success, he told the team, was not printed in a newspaper. It was earned in competition. Today, his team ranks second in its conference and with another victory may find itself back in the state playoff competition.

The story of the coach came to me when reading a post on The Dallas Morning News site. It included quotes from J.C. Penney CEO Myron "Mike" Ullman who inherited a group that had plenty of reasons to be dispirited. Sales were plummeting, layoffs had taken many fellow workers with long histories at the company, and some in previous management had little respect for their contributions. One former executive called them "dopes", short for "dumb old Penney employees."

Today, Mr. Ullman says morale is improving and he has taken steps to help that along including:

  • Having management ask frontline workers for forgiveness;
  • Never mentioning previous management since it would only cause workers to look back;
  • Opening lines of communication with him directly through "ask Mike" phone and email sessions.

Whether Mr. Ullman and Penney’s employees will eventually win remains to be seen. One thing is clear, he is taking steps to get everyone in the company focused on the task at hand. Victory or loss will be won in the company’s stores and website, not in the press.

How much attention do retail execs and managers pay to company morale on a day-to-day basis? What are your recommendations for keeping morale high during tough times?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

Join the Discussion!

18 Comments on "What Does It Take to Boost Morale in Tough Times?"


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
David Biernbaum
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

The way to lift morale in tough times, and even when times are not so tough, is for management to make a heartfelt commitment to some golden rules:

1. Treat all employees and associates with care and respect.
2. Encourage all employees and associates to treat other employees and associates with care and respect.
3. Communication is king. Communication breeds security and confidence.
4. Be upfront and honest about the issues, problems, and solutions.
5. Do not allow for dichotomy within your organization.
6. Give very clear direction for achieving goals but allow for associates to have input on how to arrive there.

Debbie Hauss
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

This should be an ongoing priority. One of the best ways to keep up morale and productivity is by empowering employees. I recently heard an executive from the Vitamin Shoppe speak about how his organization has improved sales and decreased turnover by including employees in the business decision-making process. Great lessons can be learned from this type of success!

Bob Phibbs
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

Yet by his very re-appearance on the scene, isn’t it saying look backwards to pre-Johnson? It is great to open lines of communication, but JCP still looks like Frankenstein with half-done SWAS. Improving morale takes a leader leading the charge forward. I’m not sure that’s what it looks like to many people with its current leader.

Adrian Weidmann
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

Retail executives only pay attention to company morale on a day-to-day basis when it directly affects the share price. As sung eloquently by Joni Mitchell in her song “Big Yellow Taxi,” “You don’t know what you got, ’til it’s gone.” So too do executives suddenly lament once the damage is done. Perhaps it would have been prudent for “the former guy” to create an “ask Ron” session.

Typically, retail executives are searching for ways to minimize store employees as that is a quick way to increase the sales/square foot ratio and hence share price. Unfortunately, this strategy invariably leads to staff that is not empowered to effectively represent the brand.

Retail executives and managers should constantly and actively measure the pulse of employees’ morale throughout the organization through both good and bad times. That’s one of the key characteristics of successful leadership. They’ve turned this strategy into a successful reality TV program in CBS’s “Undercover Boss.” Perhaps more executives should try doing this without the promise of a “feel-good” PR stunt.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

David’s Top 6 List is quite good and accurate. I am going to take two from the list as my priorities: Communication is king. And, be up front about the issues, problems and solutions.
Both are about communications and honesty. If you let your staff know what is really happening and ask for their help, they are more likely to roll up their sleeves and get down to doing what they can to be part of the solution.

Don’t be the sole director of what is to be done. Get input from your team and make them a team wanting to be in the game, not on the sidelines watching you, the leader, do all the pulling. Then watch morale soar even during difficult times.

Gordon Arnold
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

Your priorities are for the most part well in order or on the way to becoming so. With the retail market trends showing higher employee turnover and lower moral, it is at least obvious that executive awareness and attention is low. There is certainly no apparent effort on a day by day basis.

In a point of observation, it is much easier to conclude that fewer employees at a lower cost to the company is at least a very high priority, getting a lot of attention on a daily basis. Like it or not, that’s what most, as in the general public, that ponder this issue do conclude. A better question put to ownership should ask if there are more imaginative executive styles that can be used to build a better company for all?

David Zahn
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

David Biernbaum’s list is a good manifesto of what it takes. Morale is of critical importance (as we are treated, we treat others). I think asking employees to participate in decision-making and problem solving is vitally important – and should be followed by sharing what steps are being taken, progress, and how success will be measured. When people can track results and recognize their contributions to that success is motivating, and morale improves.

People will connect with the company as “theirs” and not just a place to collect a paycheck.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

A great supermarket gave quarterly bonuses to all store employees when the store beat its profit and sales targets. Getting employees to own a piece of the business helps drive morale.

Eric Chester
Guest
Eric Chester
8 years 6 months ago

From my vantage point, most execs appear clueless to the morale of employees and have their attention focused only on board directives and shareholder expectations.

I like David’s 6 Golden Rules and offer one more: Spend time on the front lines. Roll up your shirt sleeves and be the undercover boss. The quickest way to turn things around is to be an ‘in-the-trenches’ leader who understands what the people in your organization are going through, and enact a plan for turning those things around.

Small noticeable things make a big difference. That’s the message of Gladwell’s “Tipping Point.”

David Livingston
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

Tough times only happen to bad retailers. For good retailers, times are good all the time and they pay lots of attention to morale.

So the first thing a retailer needs to do is become a good retailer. That means hiring good people who are winners and run your company in a manner that avoids tough times, usually meaning don’t be greedy. Usually the cause of tough times is shortsighted greediness. 

When I’m out evaluating supermarket competitors, I know there is good morale when I feel good coming out of a competitor’s store. If a competitor can win me over, just think what they can do for their employees. Hy-Vee, Wegmans, Woodmans, HEB, Publix, and such; the way their employees talk, you would think the management could walk on water.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

To build morale, it’s important to involve staff in decision-making, and give them a stake in the company’s success. It’ll be important if Ullman can allow JCP staff to have some ownership in the company’s approach and execution.

Doug Fleener
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

I believe you have to invest heavily in your front-line management team. Retail is local. If you work for a good boss, chances are you work for a good company.

The problem is, when a company is struggling, the pain rolls downhill straight to local management. As a result they’re overworked and beaten down with low payroll and few resources.

Carlos Arámbula
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

A good executive pays attention to everything, even if by proxy.

Training is paramount, because employees need to know goals, how they will contribute to it, and how it ultimately benefits them.

In the military or in team sports, it’s easier because individual efforts are constantly in display and evaluated, for a retail company the goal can be more esoteric (“best customer service in the industry,” “most fashionable,” “cutting edge”). At the end, even small changes in behavior contribute to the goal and motivate employees.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
Guest
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
8 years 6 months ago
When you really dig into a business’s success or failure, you rarely read about a successful business that had terrible morale. Morale is the heart and soul of a business. It’s how new products are created, customers are satisfied beyond expectation and hours are worked far beyond competitors. I feel lucky to have met and become friends with several successful CEOs. When we discuss success and failure, the conversation almost always turns back to employees, their morale and a common goal. J.C. Penney has a huge hurdle to overcome, but I believe if the team is rallied around one common goal they can turn the business around. Things to consider when building morale 1) Do your employees eat what they make? – If your employees all shop at your competitor or eat a competitive product you have a major issue that needs to be resolved quickly. 2) As a leader, encourage risk and forgive failure in the effort to improve. When you instill fear you squash any hope of innovation. 3) Look deep into the… Read more »
Tony Orlando
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

Just allowing employees to be involved in how the business is to be managed, and not being subjected to a dictator is critical for keeping employees motivated. The agenda must be set, and than must be implemented by the department heads in a way that allows for input about it on all sides.

The focus is always the customer and without satisfied ones, we are out of a job, so I make sure everyone understands the true meaning of customer service. Reward them the best you can, and keep an eye on your competition. I wish everyone success in their holiday ventures.

Bill Davis
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

Not enough attention gets paid to company morale and the front line workers on a day to day basis. Honesty, sincerity and shared sacrifice can help boost morale.

Shep Hyken
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

Motivation is always important. Keeping a workforce engaged and enthused is key, especially in tougher times. Celebrate small victories; increases in sales, meeting goals, any accolades from customers, etc. Look for opportunities to celebrate. Also, be open and share news, both good and bad. Sharing tough/bad news is not easy, but done the right way a company can get employees to step up and deliver at a higher level. Make employees feel a part of the cause.

Kate Blake
Guest
Kate Blake
8 years 6 months ago

Money motivates everyone. If you can pay your exec bonuses than you can pay the people on the front lines, so to speak, because they are the ones who are bringing in the money.

wpDiscuz

Take Our Instant Poll

How effective are execs and managers across retail in fostering good employee morale?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...