Group of business people sitting in circle and discussing in the office.
One crucial key to morale is simply making sure employees know that they are valued, appreciated and that they can play an important role in the company’s future. — Getty Images/ jacoblund

Improving employee morale fuels better engagement, which leads to greater teamwork, more productivity, fewer sick days and higher levels of employee retention.

But efforts to boost employee morale with symbolic acts or token gestures can backfire. To be successful, morale-boosting thoughts and actions must, at their core, be genuine. While business owners and managers may think this is hard, employees say it’s pretty easy.

“Morale is critical to employee performance and productivity, ultimately shaping the quality and success of small businesses,” said Daphne Pedersen, PhD, a professor and chair of the sociology department at the University of North Dakota.

One crucial key to morale is simply making sure employees know that they are valued, appreciated and that they can play an important role in the company’s future.

[Read: The Best Employee Benefits for Keeping Workers Happy]

What’s really behind employee morale

There are four central emotional and cognitive factors behind employee morale, Pedersen told CO—:

  • Workload.
  • Support, including resources and relationships.
  • Views of leadership ability and actions.
  • Recognition.

In fact, a little thanks goes a long way, studies have shown. When managers simply express gratitude, employees are more productive. Also, employees perform better when they feel respected and appreciated by their team members. And decades of research has shown that happy, psychologically well employees are more productive.

But there’s a big gap between the appreciation managers feel for their employees and how appreciated those employees feel, according to research led by Kerry Gibson, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Babson College. Many managers acknowledge that they struggle to communicate their appreciation. So Gibson and her colleagues turned to employees for solutions, and came up with several, which they detailed in the Harvard Business Review:

  • Touch base early and often. A simple “good morning” can make a difference.
  • Address growth opportunities. Discussing stretch goals or assignments acknowledges an employee’s value.
  • Offer flexibility. Allowing an employee to set their hours or work from home signals trust.

Employees crave both kudos and developmental suggestions, so balanced feedback is vital, Gibson and her colleagues found. But don’t smush positives and negatives together into a feedback sandwich — that just confuses employees. Finally, the researchers suggest making positive feedback a routine and create a culture of appreciation in your company. While expressing your appreciation for employees must feel natural and genuine to you, it’s important to set time to do it on a daily or weekly basis.

Morale is critical to employee performance and productivity, ultimately shaping the quality and success of small businesses.

Daphne Pedersen, PhD, a professor and chair of the sociology department at the University of North Dakota

How to get started

Rarely has it been so important for small businesses to focus on employee morale, given all the pandemic-induced grief, uncertainty and exhaustion. To thrive, small businesses must evolve into more “human organizations,” experts now say. That means putting people first, empowering them to act like owners and helping them pursue their passions.

Among your roles in improving morale is to build trust, which means you’ll need to be a little vulnerable and actually engage with your employees to foster relationships.

Meanwhile — and now more than ever — keep your eyes open for signs of burnout and get in front of potential problems by making sure all your employees take quality time off to truly get away from their work and the texts and emails that tether them to their jobs 24/7.

Importantly, don’t expect that you have all the answers for each individual on your team. There are several useful survey tools and other programs for both determining and improving employee morale.

Pedersen offers one easy way to begin addressing all aspects of employee morale, a simple question that appeals to the cognitive and emotional aspects of it. Ask your employees what you can do to help them do their job even better.

“Then be prepared to listen and follow through,” Pedersen said.

[Read more: 6 Tools to Track Employee Engagement]

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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CO— is committed to helping you start, run and grow your small business. Learn more about the benefits of small business membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Published May 05, 2021