It's an old saying: "People talk."
They do. From their view of the universe, everyone has an opinion-even if unspoken-about everything, including how you run your business. So if this is a universal truth, and you are lucky enough to be running a business, what do you think people are saying about your company and those that lead? Do you know? Because not knowing means that unbeknownst to you, the company morale could be under serious attack.
If you're fortunate to find yourself at the helm of a growing business, you'll soon realize it's very difficult to keep everyone aligned, motivated and performing to the peak of their potential. While it's true that what's discussed among company executives plays a huge factor in a business' success, it's even more true that what's discussed outside the leadership team can be the difference between the mission being accomplished or failed.
They do. And while you can't (and should never want to) control what employees say to each other about the company, you can influence how the conversation impacts morale-and therefore your business. Here's my four-step process for insulating company morale from misalignment, demotivation and underperformance:
STEP 1: Identify which employees have the greatest impact on morale.
There are three groups of personalities that have the greatest impact on morale-both positively and negatively:
The Curmudgeons-Curmudgeons have a negative impact on your morale. Depending on the size of your business, there are usually one or more people with this personality type. These people are not all bad apples-some are just not good at having productive conversations that create positive change. In some cases they simply do not appreciate how complicated businesses are to run, and they complain when things are not perfect. Curmudgeons don't give leaders a break for being human, especially since you're "supposed to lead." If there are business issues, they will say negative things around co-workers about how "bad" things are, infecting your morale. But in other cases, Curmudgeons have great instincts as to what's wrong with the business, but they do not have the communication skills or forum to have a productive conversation.
The Vocal-These people have the greatest potential to impact morale positively. They have personalities that like to engage other people in conversation, and in many cases they skew towards being current or potential leaders. They are not afraid to step in and try to shape someone's opinion. You can spot the Vocal in your company because, yes, they talk more. Their personalities influence the culture around them, and they often speak the words that others are thinking. There is a certain level of exposure whenever you speak up, so it takes a certain personality to willingly help in shaping the conversations that employees have when leadership isn't around. That's why finding these extroverts is important.
The Vocal Curmudgeons-After reading about the two previous personalities, you can imagine the level of destruction this group can have on morale. These people will actively and openly besmirch the company, identifying problems and rarely suggesting solutions. They attempt to rally others to agree and express the same hyperbolic frustration. They may orchestrate after hours social events or lunches where they can have a captive audience to their frustrations. What's interesting is most companies know who these people are. because they're one part Vocal, so their curmudgeonry eventually reaches everyone's ears.
STEP 2: Identify where in your business morale is most often put at risk.
I remember my company once had two employees that were not working at their desk. That wasn't a problem, but the fact that they were doing it every day seemed like more than just needing quiet space to work. It turned out that the employees did not like their manager, and therefore had set up shop in a private area of the office to both work and commiserate, justifiably to some degree.
When I mentioned this behavior to the manager, she investigated and ultimately we uncovered that there was a strained relationship between her and her direct reports. That relationship could not be repaired. One employee eventually found a new job and then poached the other employee from our company. We would learn later that one of these employees was definitely a Vocal Curmudgeon.
The two employees were in a random location of our office, but there are more common places in your office where morale is at great risk. It's not that you need to (or ever should) try to control the conversations that occurs in these places, but rather you need to make sure that there are people who are positive influencers who bring positive energy to these discussions:
Employee Chat. Perhaps the most damaging conversations to your team and company culture occur in chats. These short, microbursts of frustration go 100% undetected by managers, and they're perfect for a Curmudgeon to create havoc on morale. Even after an employee leaves the company, I have never, and I instruct managers to never, look at the log of employee chats. You just don't want to see what people have to say about you and the company because it's not worth the pain (yes managers are humans with feelings). People are more than okay with airing out their opinions about people, processes, and the company in general on company chat, and these destructive summaries what's going on inside your business go unchallenged.
Happy Hour. I remember when our company grew big enough that people were not as comfortable having a conversation around me during happy hour events. I was sad about this, but I understood. Happy hour is a great time for employees to air out their concerns, frustrations and of course ideas as to how the company needs to change. The conversations can be quite helpful to your business, as committed employees will often try to identify and solve problems during these times of camaraderie, and yes, inebriation. On the other hand, frustrations often find followers through the bonding effect of beers and liquor.
Lunch. Think of lunch as a sober Happy Hour. Enough said.
STEP 3: Establish communication lines with employees.
Once you know who has the greatest influence on morale, and when you know where morale is at greatest risk, you can start to influence how people think of the company, and what they discuss when leadership isn't around. They key word here is influence-not control. In many ways, your goal is to add the voice of leadership to conversations when no leaders are around. You must earn this influence, and here's how:
Establish a culture of candor. It's important for employees to feel like they can speak their minds when something is wrong. Your leadership team should establish a company core value, "culture of candor." People should feel there are only benefits-and no negative consequences-associated with sharing strong or controversial opinions. In our company, I love it when an employee raises their hand and says "culture of candor" before they asked me a really tough question. It makes me feel that, for the most part, employees feel unafraid to tell me exactly what's really on their minds.
Enlist employee ambassadors. In order to keep a pulse on company morale, you need partners who keep you aware of employee sentiment on any number of topics. A Vocal is a great person to tap as an employee ambassador because they're highly-motivated to articulate what's going on, and they're great as disseminating your thoughts to the rest of the company. And although it's difficult, enlisting a Curmudgeon as an ambassador could be a great idea because if you change their attitude, it resonates across the company. These people, using your culture of candor, can tell you exactly what's going on inside teams. They should never be team leaders, but individual employees, and you should schedule one-on-one and group meetings with them periodically.
Admit your mistakes. Even if your company is not dealing with any serious morale issues, it's still a good idea to let everyone know that the company is self-aware. If the leadership team is having challenges organizing a big initiative, and it knows that'a affecting morale, it should not be afraid to make that clear. People are always wary of leaders, especially when their leadership can directly impact a person's well-being. Self-awareness is one of the strongest skills a leader can possess, as admitting when you're human, makes you human. From that vulnerable place of admitting imperfection, you can earn many points as you try to build trust with your workforce.
STEP 4: Start influencing the conversations.
Now that you've earned some trust with your people, and you know who can influence morale, it's time to help everyone understand how they too can improve their communication so business problems find solutions. Without ever opening a chat window, or attending a happy hour, or grabbing lunch, you can have a tremendous impact on the conversations that influence morale. Here are some tips for employee engagement that take everything we've learned today into consideration:
Have an employee roundtable discussion, followed by a happy hour.
Employees often plan happy hours when they feel there hasn't been one for a while. If you help establish a more consistent cadence for meeting up, you can also influence how business challenges are discussed as everyone moves from the office to the local watering hole.
Encourage teams to discuss company matters over lunch. Formalize employee lunches and ask that attendees choose a challenging topic for discussion. Ask them to share the results if the discussion when they return. When employees know there is a welcomed time and a place for addressing company challenges, they'll spend their other lunches catching up with colleagues, not complaining about what they perceive as unaddressable issues.
End every company meeting asking for questions that people might be afraid to ask. At the end of a meeting, remind employees that you understand that sometimes they may be wary of asking tough questions to leadership. Remind them that any problems that leadership is unaware of cannot be addressed, so "culture of candor" needs to be at work. Personally, I make the point by telling people this: "You know that question you're going to ask your coworker over lunch or during happy hour? Well that's the question you should be asking right now." You'll be pleasantly surprised who raises their hand.
Chat with employees to informally discuss business challenges. Start a conversation about a particular business issue over chat with an employee. You can't do it once-that's weird-you need to show that you're establishing a new communication channel with people. Communicating over chat also establishes the forum as a place where productive conversations can and should happen, even with leadership. Employees are likely to tell someone else about the positive experience-most likely by chat.
Coach Vocal employees to speak up for the company.Companies do not succeed if employees view themselves as separate from leadership and the company itself. If no one is speaking up for the company when leadership isn't around, curmudgeons will win in the battle for company morale. If you proactively reach out to these influencers, and ensure you've earned their positive outlook on the business, you can then ask them to make sure conversations about the company are fair and balanced. You're not looking for someone to spew propaganda, but rather an ally on the ground with every day employees who has the right temperament and communication capabilities
Realign curmudgeons to be supportive of the business, or transition them out. Ultimately, there are some people who are going to continue to be detractors even when you know you're doing you best. But as leaders, you have a responsibility to listen to Curmudgeons. They are often very candid, which helps you truly understand of their concerns. Remember sometimes these concerns are quite valid and should be addressed. You might turn a company Curmudgeon into a company cheerleader if you do so. But in some cases, the Curmudgeon will never give the company a fair chance, and that's when you need to work with them to develop to a transition plan. You know what that means.
Great Morale Starts with Great Communication
Remember, when employees don't have an outlet for discussing company challenges and company morale, they do it in places where it's tough to influence the conversation and prevent Curmudgeons from winning. If you establish a culture of candor and create noninvasive, yet influential opportunities for discussion about the company, in no time you'll see a workforce that's more aligned, motivated and operating at peak performance.