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Can’t get no satisfaction: the effects of low morale

Tuesday, February 16, 2016 - 10:07

By Hamish Williams

Measuring morale can be a difficult task, particularly in large organisations. The enthusiasm of your employees can change from one individual to the next and from one team to the next. For the most part, it’s up to individual managers to monitor their direct reports and determine if they see a shift in behaviour. It’s also generally up to individual managers to remedy the situation in a manner they feel is appropriate, perhaps through a casual catch up or some strategically placed praise.

But what happens when the morale of your entire organisation is low? Morale is generally understood to refer to a group’s capacity for believing in the organisation’s goals, particularly in the face of hardship. It is a term synonymous with the military and for good reason. Morale is not only vital for improving unit cohesion amongst troops, it will also determine how likely units are to surrender or desert during a campaign.

The risks of low morale are much the same for civilian organisations although the consequences aren’t quite as dire. Nevertheless, employee morale can have significant negative effects on an organisation’s productivity so it isn’t to be ignored. The only real way to understand these negative effects is to look at the effects on an individual of low morale.

Low staff morale can have a harmful effect on an organisation's productivity

A popular template for organisaing and understanding the consequences of job dissatisfaction is the exit-voice-loyalty-neglect (EVLN) model developed by economist, Albert Hirschman who observed that employees respond to what they believe are deteriorating organisational conditions with exit, voice, loyalty or neglect.

Exit involves an employee either leaving the organisation or transferring to a different unit in order to escape what they believe is an unsatisfactory situation. Hirschman’s theory was that dissatisfaction builds over time and when dissatisfaction reaches an appropriate level, the employee will be sufficiently motivated to leave an organisation. When considering how reluctant most people are to change employment situations, conditions have usually deteriorated to their lowest point before an employee moves toward the exit.

Voice refers to an attempt to change the unsatisfactory situation. Whether that’s by talking to coworkers to get consensus on how to change a situation or by talking directly to senior management, these employees are not willing to passively stand by or to simply leave without attempting to fix things first. That can be taken to the extreme where formal complaints are made, strike action undertaken as well as other more destructive and counterproductive behaviours.

Loyalty was not considered an outcome of dissatisfaction in the original EVLN model, but a determinant of outcome. For example high loyalty would mean an employee was likely to use voice whereas low loyalty meant the employee was likely to choose exit. More recently, loyalty has been viewed more as an outcome but it can be difficult to substantiate whether they are also engaging in voice and/or neglect. In difficult circumstances, loyalty means an employee will simply “suffer in silence” and wait for conditions to improve.

Neglect is perhaps the most common outcome of dissatisfied employees. It generally involves reducing work output as well as lowering the quality of that output. This is normally when an employee believes a role isn’t worth the stress of extra effort but also believes finding a new role is too stressful. While often confused with loyalty, these employees aren’t staying in their role because of their personal alignment with an organisation. They are simply going to collect a paycheck for as long as they can as they may not believe there is an available exit option to them.

No matter which of these outcomes is more likely, the cumulative effect of all of these is a generally unhappy and unproductive workforce. Whether you’re having to hire and train new employees because of high staff turnover or you’re spending countless hours in dispute resolution meeting with unhappy employees, the costs to your time as a manager and the organisation’s bottom line are substantial. Developing a strategy for improving and maintaining high staff morale is vital to your organisation’s success.

As part of the AIM Business School MBA Program, AIM's Leading, Managing and Developing People unit will enhance your ability to motivate and develop your people which will assist them in becoming more productive. You’ll learn how to think objectively about your own skills and preferences as a leader and manager as well as becoming more conscious of recognising and creating opportunities to enhance your abilities.