"On Managing" Column for the Fall, 2000 issue of LA&M
John Lubans

"I’m So Low, I Can’t Get High": The Low Morale Syndrome and What to Do about It.

Employee morale surveys are fairly frequent in the business world. But, while morale is much talked about, it is rarely assessed in a formal way in libraries.

I once took part in a "real" morale survey. It was done library-wide with an anonymous questionnaire on how staff regarded their work and the workplace. Naturally, we sought to harvest ideas for improvements.

The results, (the report’s cover depicted a "thermometer of satisfaction" with the mercury at below freezing!), were more jeremiad than road map. This storm of dissatisfaction left the organization reeling.

Were things really as bad as they were made out to be? If they were, what were the causes? And, most importantly, what actions could move the mercury to a satisfactory level?

Thinking back on that experience, I believe that the perception of low morale among many, respondents was influenced and overly magnified by what’s been termed a "culture of complaint" in library organizations. If "attitude is a choice", a fair number of the responding staff chose to believe the worst. I can understand why a morale survey is not a top priority for many library managers.

Certainly, there are genuine morale and work satisfaction issues to be worked upon in every library, but library management consultants say they are hampered mightily when staff cannot move past dwelling on organizational wrongs. This paralysis, the consultants observe, incapacitates staff from even imagining what an improved status would be. Efforts to improve are met with predictions of failure.

What has been your experience in this regard? At library conferences I’ve frequently encountered the "If you think you’ve got it bad, wait till you hear this!" phenomenon where people seek to top each other in just how awful their job or their professional situation is.

Is this just the usual and, some claim, psychologically beneficial venting tradition?

I wonder about how therapeutic it is when I hear woeful tales repeated with no desire to seek solutions or to take"next steps". It’s as if it is all in the telling, not in the resolving. A solution or explanation would be anticlimactic.

One library I know has a story that repeatedly appears in confidential debriefings of staff morale. As told, a deserving staff member was passed over for a promotion and, adding injury to perceived insult, was demoted. The promotion went instead to a buddy of the department head. This story illustrates the alleged unfairness and favoritism in that workplace. A little digging into the circumstances of that story would reveal the half truths, but that is never done, and to my knowledge that one-sided story is still told and accepted as gospel. It appears impervious to truth.

Another component of extremely low morale (or Low Morale Syndrome) is evident in this situation: A staff member tells everyone, including her supervisor, "I despise this job" but makes no visible effort to move on to something better. When a job move is suggested, the response is:, "I would, but…" (fill in with an appropriate rationalization). And, alas, this person is not leaving any time soon. Most managers would be worried, and rightly so, about the impact this person is having on the organization and its clients.

What can managers do to combat these extremes? How do problem people become part of the solution? More importantly, how can you get an realistic picture of the state of the organization’s morale in order to try to do something about it in a pragmatic way?

First, what is morale?

It’s elusive, this idea of morale. Do you know high morale when you see it? Is low morale symptomatic of an organization’s culture? Is morale inherent? That is, do unhappy people bring low morale to the job? Or, is it something acquired on the job? If new hires are inducted into low morale by old hands, can the new hires be inculcated with high morale?

The business world has noted several influences on an employee’s sense of well being. These influences are evident in the questions used for taking an organization’s morale temperature. Not surprisingly, many of the questions relate to the worker’s:

perceived importance of her work,
opportunity to develop new skills,
availability of continued growth (a future),
clarity of purpose in his work,
elbow room for decision making,
sense of trust, and,
being recognized for a job well done.

Most readers will recognize these as essential elements of effective workplaces. An organization with more than one or two of these missing is unlikely to get good morale scores.

Also, several survey questions will ask about communication and relationships.

These touch on how a worker is treated and regarded in the organization. For example questions ask for feedback on the degree to which:

leadership is genuinely concerned about employees thoughts and opinions;
there is general support for differing points of view;
there is support for new ideas;
people are given an opportunity to present and try new ideas;
there is cooperation among departments;
staff is involved in decision making;
managers listen; and
management is clear about the organization’s long term goals.

And, usually, a small number of survey questions will relate to work place environment, including quality of work space, equipment, safety, etc. 

Presumably, the workers’ rating of all these questions becomes a gauge of the actual morale in the organization. A low score equates, under normal conditions, to low morale and a high score reflects high morale.

Why morale matters.

"It is in the darkness of their eyes that people lose their way, and not, as they suppose, in any darkness that shrouds the path." - Black Elk.

This bit of Native American wisdom has much truth in it. It speaks eloquently to me about why I should be concerned about morale and the crushing effect negative morale can have on productivity and purpose.

It probably never really was this easy, but early in my career one simple management formula advised: "You can have unhappy staff and high productivity or you can have happy staff and low productivity." We’ve come a long way to believing (and understanding) that high morale can be an equal partner to high productivity and creativity.

Morale matters because low morale affects process; in libraries the process usually involves clients and staff. Because of our strong service tradition, with many points of service, we are especially vulnerable to the impact of low morale. Consider some of the extreme behaviors all of us have observed at service points (hopefully not our own!). For example, an excessively rigid interpretation of the rules which offends clients may be caused by a leadership that is distrustful of a staff’s decision making abilities. Or, that strict interpretation of the "rules" may be a means for unhappy staff to "take it out" on clients.

And, good people, when caught up in the low morale syndrome, may give up and leave. The balance remaining either can’t leave or are active contributors to the dissatisfaction and the predictable downward spiral into dysfunction and marginalization.

The price of the unwillingness to let go of the complaint is the failure to take action. Nay -sayers can and do repress good ideas from surfacing, in formal and informal settings.

What to do about low morale.

If I were to change one thing about the morale survey I was part of, it would be to make the questions more specific to the individual. I’d ask far fewer general impression questions. Instead, I’d focus on the individual and how she is doing, on his experience, and her ideas for improvements that matter most to them as individuals. Why? Because after the morale survey came out I heard from several people that their morale (individual and unit) was more than OK, it was the low morale of other people and units that caused them to give a low rankings to the general questions - a sort of unanticipated sympathy vote.

Along with this, I’d construct questions that get closer to the locus of low morale. Examples from the business world include the use of provocative metaphors, for example, "Library wide meetings have the atmosphere of "a king holding court" or "a mud wrestling match", etc. Or, "In my department I feel like "a cog in a machine", "a member of a family" or "a valued member of a team?"

Clarity around people’s roles and decisions can do much to raise morale by taking away uncertainty and suspicion. The "favoritism" story I referred to above was based in large part on misunderstanding and misinterpretation – the communication could have been better. The manager and the affected employee should have fully discussed what was happening and why. While that discussion would not have assuaged the disappointment of the employee, it would have provided facts for her to consider why she was not selected for the promotion. She still would not like the decision but perhaps she would have understood it and been able to deal with it in constructive ways.

Management has a responsibility to say that attitude matters. If someone’s problematic attitude is obvious and borders on incivility, that needs to be discussed.

After listening to understand what is bothering the person, the manager can motivate (or try to change that person’s behavior) in four ways: reason, inspire, support, or confront. All four ways should be available to every manager and each manager should have a good understanding of how to apply them.

A hands-off approach (avoiding or accommodating) is a mistake when dealing with staff with extremely low morale. You may need to say the unspeakable (in private, of course), "Since you are so unhappy here, how can I help you find a position somewhere else." In my years in organizations I have come to regard as bizarre the notion that the work place has responsibility for my happiness!

Attitude is not a genuine difference like race, or background, or sexual preference. Attitude is a choice, as has been said before. If leadership is to get results, then people who are in opposition to change because of a profound attitudinal problems ought to be encouraged to lighten up or leave as graciously and quickly as possible.

If you observe a staff member repeatedly undermining committee meetings, cutting down suggestions from others, do you do nothing (avoiding or accommodating)? Or do you tell that person (with helpful elaboration) to get some balance in their viewpoints. (See the case) Do you do that in front of the group or in private?

Finally, however you assess morale, you need to do something about the results. An explanation to the organization about what actions can or cannot be taken is essential. This assumes that, prior to the morale assessment, you have some idea of what can be done – the questions you ask will indicate that.

If your results show that the upper administration does not believe in or respect the staff, what action will be taken? The point here is to give some consideration up front to what you can or can not do. Making public the resolve to work on a few of the most important results (even just one!) can give an immediate boost to morale.

Case: "Knee-jerk Negativism"

Your less than favorite, but most vocal, staff member (Emma) is upset about a comment her new immediate supervisor (Cal) has made in Emma’s written evaluation. The comment is about Emma’s attitude toward changes in the department. You are the head of that department. Essentially, Emma wants you to delete a phrase in the written assessment that "most, if not all, suggestions made in Emma’s presence are dismissed by her with a ‘knee-jerk negativism’". Emma claims that "knee-jerk negativism" is an exaggeration and hurtful to her self-esteem.

You know from personal observation that the evaluation is right on target but staff evaluations in this large public library, as a rule, have been done with an emphasis on the bland. However, Cal, as a new supervisor, is taking the evaluation process at face value and giving some useful, if blunt, feedback to Emma. She has certainly gotten Emma’s attention! Overall, the assessment is a balanced one, with an objective discussion of Emma’s good qualities but it does not shrink from the fact that her behavior does interfere with the unit’s making improvements. The department, under your leadership, is strong on participatory decision-making.

Do you advise the supervisor to soften her blunt language or do you let it stand? What else would you do?

John Lubans’ one-day workshop, Learning to Lead, is for new and seasoned managers in public and academic libraries. E-mail: Lubans1@nc.rr.com for feedback on this column.