What Does It Take to Boost Morale in Tough Times?
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?