THE BLOG
11/28/2016 06:47 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2017

Finding Morale in Unlikely Places

Often, I encounter leaders whose biggest complaint is a lack of morale in their team. For those seeking a solution to motivate, my advice is to look inward. Morale emanates from leadership; it begins, and ends, with you.

What we do as leaders sets the tone for the team. A recent survey by Campaign US showed that morale in the advertising industry had dropped 36 percent from 2015, and the top reason cited by 73 percent of respondents was "company leadership." As someone who once ran an agency, I see trends like this as indicative of the workforce writ large. It has been estimated that some 22 million employees nationwide are "disengaged" as a result of low morale, and this could be costing the economy some $350 billion each year. This is especially concerning because, as I said, low morale is actually a reflection of leadership.

The holidays can often be the most challenging time of year for leaders to instill motivation in their teams. Here are some ways to boost morale and finish the year strong.

Deadlines can be your friend.

Nothing brings a team together like pressure, and the shared goal of a difficult deadline, while stressful, can also make for tighter working relationships. Deadlines help employees feel as if they are sharing an experience and therefore create a connection with each other that is important for the workplace environment.

While fabricating a deadline is not advised, there is no harm in manufacturing some urgency behind a team-focused task that has a hard due date. Bring the team together up front, explain the nature of the project, focus on a drop-dead date and give a clear (borderline unreasonable) timeline. Follow up each day requesting status reports via email or Slack. When individuals hit roadblocks in their work, pair them off with someone else on the team who might help them overcome. All of this should be done against the backdrop of a ticking clock.

However, be careful: make sure you take part in the struggle. Be more than the taskmaster cajoling work out of your team, lest they unite and find common ground in their resentment towards you.

Illuminate a clear career path.

Campaign US reported the second most cited reason for low morale was "lack of advancement". The strongest leaders are confident and unthreatened by the ambition of subordinates. Limiting those seeking to climb the ranks is the surest way to lose their interest or their talent. Ambition should be recognized and rewarded, even when the employee may not be ready for the next step.

Also, sating ambition isn't always about a promotion. Often it's about acknowledgement. Sometimes it's about communication--communicating a career path that will lead the team member to the next level.

The importance of regular performance reviews cannot be overstated, but they are also ephemeral. To last beyond that moment in time, you should find a way to keep your ambitious people focused on the prize. Try creating an infographic of your organizational chart, illustrating the experience of senior leaders and how they got to their position, and highlighting a path to get to that next level. This won't be an effective tool for everyone--just the ones with big plans.

Make responsibility fluid.

The Campaign US survey's number three factor responsible for lowering morale was "dissatisfaction with work." Often, we allow an individual's position or title to supersede their value and talent.

For example, meetings are a necessary evil we all must deal with, but if you have a talented designer, why would you fill their calendar with appointments? Put them in a position to succeed and let them flourish. Likewise, another designer in the same position may work better with greater interaction and more face-time, so manage their time as such. A hard and fast rule that all team members tackle uniform responsibilities may seem equitable, but it isn't a way to manage to your team's expectations. While we cannot always control what our team works on, it is in your power as a leader to control how your team works.

Healthy teams are happy teams.

A study from Leeds Metropolitan University showed that employees who exercised for 30 - 60 minutes per day had a 15 percent increase of productivity. Gym memberships, 30-minute yoga lunch sessions, or subsidizing marathons for employees can give your team the boost they need.

These activities can also be great team-building exercises. Indoor rock-climbing, hiking, paintball or laser tag (if you can still find it in your area) are all ways to foster camaraderie and teamwork.

There is no simple formula to boost morale. Remember, your team members are individuals with full, rich lives outside of work, and their happiness is derived from more than what happens from 9-to-6. But as a leader, you can do things to make those hours more rewarding, and ensure your team members aren't citing you as the reason for their low morale.