THE BLOG
01/20/2015 03:56 am ET Updated Mar 21, 2015

The Solution to Low Employee Morale Is Simpler Than You Think

When employee morale plummets, leaders often look for a magic-bullet solution. It's easy to place the blame on bad hires or a breakdown in work ethic as a society, but low employee morale and performance always comes back to leadership.

Passion and energy within a company start at the top and flow downstream. That means you are responsible for shaping your company's culture.

Time and time again, I see good leaders who genuinely care about their employees create inane, demeaning policies that do nothing except send their employees the wrong message. But high performance comes from high morale, not rules.

Great workplaces are ones where employees at every level are valued and trusted. This generates a cycle of hard work and achievement, which motivates employees to come to work every day and contribute.

You can become your team's hero without rewriting the employee handbook or busting out the flip charts. Here are a few steps to spur this cycle into action:

  1. Make Positive Assumptions
  2. Building a great company culture starts with having positive beliefs about people. The assumptions you make will drive your behavior, and your behavior will drive theirs. If you assume your employees are working hard, care about the company's success, and have integrity, they are more likely to act accordingly.

  3. Communicate High Expectations
  4. With positive assumptions about your employees should come high expectations. Too often we communicate minimum standards, when people are capable of so much more. Use superlative terms like "always" and "exceptional" to describe what you expect, and provide constructive feedback and positive reinforcement along the way.

    But it's not just enough to communicate high expectations. You have to believe it's really possible.

    A few years ago, I worked with a company whose packing department was only running at 40 percent efficiency. This team had great equipment, capable team members, and a respected leader who communicated high expectations, but the numbers never improved.

    Yet when management brought in a new leader, the numbers miraculously increased. What was the difference between the two leaders? The new leader not only set high expectations but sincerely believed it was achievable. This sincere belief is what truly inspires people.

  5. Remove Behavior-Controlling Policies
  6. In an effort to structure their organizations, leaders often implement policies to control behavior. They restrict Internet usage, supply a dress code for "casual Fridays," and even put limits on bathroom breaks.

    This is a huge morale buster because it communicates negative assumptions and a lack of trust. A great workplace culture cannot be legislated into place. Creative, smart people are motivated by expectations, trust, and loyalty.

  7. Know What Success Looks Like
  8. Communicate a clear vision of success by describing your ideal company as if you've already achieved it. Revise this statement often, and invite employees to contribute. Ask them where they would like the company to be in five years, and evolve your mission in tandem with that vision.

    Successful teams will have belief in their employees written right into their vision statement. The vision statement at GEO Specialty Chemicals states, "Employees are trusted and empowered to solve problems, take initiative, and be leaders in the organization." At Burris Logistics, the vision statement reminds everyone to empower others and not underestimate anyone.

High expectations propel morale and performance more than any policy ever could. When you keep your assumptions positive, set clear expectations, and trust your team to be exceptional, you'll create a high-performing culture that reinforces itself.

Sue Bingham is the founder and principal of HPWP Consulting. She works closely with company leaders to analyze their organizations and facilitate the implementation of commonsense systems that have a positive impact on their organizations' bottom line. Sue is a champion for Great Work Cultures, a community dedicated to unleashing the power within every human organization. Connect with Sue on Twitter @suenhpwp.