Morale is closely related to job satisfaction. When morale is high, your team is happier, more productive, and more likely to believe in your organisation's vision. On the flip side, not enough (or any) praise for a job well done, dealing with a difficult clients, or heavy workloads can significantly lessen morale, and sometimes lead to higher employee turnover.
In this article we'll discuss the importance of morale and how you can identify when levels are moving in an unfavourable direction, as well as how to give teams a boost by taking the time to recognise, and possibly even reward, their efforts.
Identifying the root cause of low morale can be complex, and there can be a number of contributing factors. It is a situation that no organisation wants to be in as it has significant costs down the line: quality of the product suffers, clients become unhappy and there is no energy within the team.
There are various reasons for morale dropping within a company, and the following are some of the more common causes.
Teams should be given the opportunity to self direct and self organise, so that they're better able to complete tasks, engage with customers and work together. That said, teams still need direction from a leader, and without that, teams can begin to feel unimportant, as though what they're doing has little worth.
Everyone needs to be kept in the loop with what's going on in the current project. Goals, praise, performance or personal gripes will always arise and need to be communicated within the team. Team members also need to be upfront with each other.
The last thing you want is a disengaged workforce where individuals feel left out and undesirable social hierarchies start to form. There's a lot you can do to help promote communication amongst teams, and we've discussed it at length here.
Unresolved conflict situations
The act of creating software is a very subjective topic and, given the speed at which the software industry moves and which new technologies are introduced, conflict situations are sure to arise as opinions clash. Dealing with these conflicts and others is critical to maintaining morale, as lingering resentment over unresolved conflicts leads to a break down of trust between team mates, and can also lead to a fear of any kind of workplace conflict.
Lack of empowerment or autonomy
If you do not allow your team to take ownership of a feature, they will take less pride in it. Here at Made we believe that programmers should be responsible for delivering features end to end. This means dealing with all aspects of it from communication with clients to infrastructure to programming. If you only deliver a very small slice of this, you will not appreciate the positive impact that you are having on the problem, which may lead to dissatisfaction.
Bad estimates and poor planning can result in significant workloads on individuals. No one wants to work overtime, especially if they are not being compensated for it. Failing to understand the underlying requirements of a piece of work can have drastic consequences on the amount of work that is required to be completed. An overburdened workforce may also be a sign of significant understaffing, and as such is a problem that needs to be rectified sooner than later.
Poor working conditions
A team cannot do their best work in an environment not equipped to handle their needs. Without a space that allows them to collaborate, to communicate, to focus and to relax, your team will become increasingly dissatisfied and more prone to distraction.
Knowing how and why a team's morale drops is the first step in making their happiness a priority, but beyond simply trying to prevent such a negative outcome, there are plenty of positive moves you can make to raise morale, and it starts with recognising the effort your team is putting in.
A downside of only having individual recognition is that it can introduce competition. To receive recognition, you must excel compared to your colleagues. Unfortunately, this can lead to unhealthy environments and slow degradation of teamwork.
By contrast, cultures with only full team recognition lead to a marked increase in amounts of cooperation and collaboration, as this is the only way to achieve success. The downside of team-only recognition is that it can go awry when individuals begin to feel that underperformers are receiving just as much reward for their actions.
Another solution seen in other cultures is never to recognise anyone for fear of causing these problems. It is important to consider that this will begin to cause individuals to feel unvalued.
Although we value individual recognition, we favour team recognition. We also believe that people should be recognised primarily through ad-hoc channels, by their peers, not by whoever sits above them in the hierarchy. We use continuous feedback as a platform for this recognition.
It's important to recognise the highly positive impact that recognising teams and individuals has on morale. Also, and potentially more importantly, the disturbing implications of poorly handling mistakes as well.
Handle mistakes in a positive way
In a high safety, high trust environment, with practices such as continuous feedback and retrospectives, the detection of a mistake should not be seen as an opportunity for a chastising or otherwise attacking the individual(s) responsible for that mistake.
Morale can be boosted during periods of adversity too, through robust, mature methods for picking up the pieces after a mistake has been made. Using mistakes as opportunities to engage in positive learning and improvement experiences, rather than downtrodden experiences, makes people feel both happier and supported in their role.
Not to mention that as a leader, you can be more effective in your role when individuals feel they can share their mistakes openly and freely with everyone else. The reason is simple: the entire team can learn how to avoid making that mistake in future. By contrast, in environments where individuals are incentivised to cover their mistakes, from fear of retribution, then the wider team misses out on the learnings gained.
Agile values communication with customers highly. A team should be driven to do the things that build customer happiness, with the hope that they are delighted by the team's efforts. Since this is the case, teams that work in close collaboration with customers have the benefit of receiving that praise directly. This praise, when received as part of a tight feedback loop with the customer, can be used as an early warning sign that something is not quite right when the amount of praise decreases.
Recognition has a half-life. One consideration of solely using annual reviews as an opportunity for recognition and praise is that these cultures risk leading to large dips in morale. As an alternative, spreading recognition throughout the year, with a platform for peer-to-peer recognition in place ensures there is never the opportunity for such dips.
At Made Tech, we have "Made Merits", a form of Karma system that is used to reward good deeds on a peer-to-peer basis. A consideration of using such a platform is that it can lead to a dip in intrinsic motivation, this can be initially manifested by "will you give me a Merit if I do that" but also demotivation when a Merit isn't received. While we believe that "Made Merits" are a harmless part of our culture, it is possible to draw parallels between Merits and other extrinsic motivators.
Recognise dependence on recognition, an extrinsic motivator, and ensuring they are also finding their work intrinsically rewarding is something that only the individual team member can do by themselves.
Having recognised and acknowledged the great work your team has done, it's time to talk about the ways in which teams and individuals can be rewarded. As we see it, rewards can be either extrinsic, something that either is or costs money, or intrinsic, something that lends itself to helping the people being rewarded feeling fulfilled and happy.
Arguably the more powerful type of reward is the intrinsic reward. It's also the trickier to give, since these rewards are something teams need to feel, rather than be given, and you can't force people to feel a certain way.
By making a point of monitoring and keeping morale up, along with creating communicative environments where their hard work can be recognised, allowing your team to structure the way they work, giving them ownership of delivery and many of the other practices we've discussed, the members of your team will feel a sense of purpose, a sense that they, and the work they're doing, matters.
With a sense of purpose, a team knows why what they're doing is important, they're driven to do it, and to do it well. Understanding how their work feeds into the wider company objectives plays a big part of instilling a sense of purpose, and we found it particularly useful to define a company mission in order to clarify why the company exists and what we're trying to achieve.
Each of our teams knows our company mission is to improve software delivery in every organisation, meaning every member of those teams believes in our mission, and anybody joining our team wants to help us achieve it.
Freedom to learn
We're proud of the work we do with our customers, but every software engineer loves having the freedom to go off and get stuck into a technology that interests them, and the two things don't always align. Rather than snuffing that thirst for knowledge out, giving your team the space to pursue and share their interests is an excellent way to keep morale up, and may even yield benefits for the wider organisation down the line.
At Made Tech, the entire team often engages in a number of non customer focussed activities, such as code dojos and hack days, where we set aside an hour a week or an entire day every month or so for everyone to do something fun and interesting that doesn't necessarily have to have commercial benefits.
This creates an environment where every member of the team knows they have the freedom to suggest other ways in which to promote learning, and that their team will respond positively to their suggestions. A recent example is the "Code Roast", a variation on the traditional practice of code reviews, whereby a team member will pull out a piece of code they're particularly not proud of, present it to the rest of the team and then spend an hour pointing out its flaws, and then working together to improve it.
For organisations like ours, who work on a variety of different projects for different customers, having a team stay on one project for months on end can become tiresome, leading to a loss of productivity and enthusiasm. While it's beneficial to have somebody on the project throughout the engagement, if only to help build and maintain a relationship with the customer, we've found it important to let our teams know that, if they have a burning desire to do so, they have the opportunity to change things up at semi-regular intervals throughout the year.
A team member can choose to either stick, and stay on the project they're on, or twist, so that they can pursue a fresh challenge. Knowing that you're not shackled to a particular project for what could be years is liberating, and keeps things feeling fresh.
On the other side of the coin are extrinsic rewards. These are things the company can give to teams to both celebrate their work, and also to maintain a healthy level of morale. While we're not advocating showering them with gifts, we do see benefits to treating your team beyond just material gains.
The following are two examples of situations we've felt it was important to hand out extrinsic reward; there are many other appropriate ways to reward your organisation, you just need to find what works best for you, your team and your organisation.
Late last year, having had a particularly successful year which saw the company grow in many positive ways, thanks to the combined efforts of the entire Made Tech team, it was decided that, for the first time since the company was founded, everybody would be taken on a company retreat. This took the shape of a 5 day break in Spain, where we'd spend a few hours each day building a product we'd use internally, and then hanging out in the evenings. This could be seen as both an extrinisic and intrinsic reward, as everything was paid for by the company, but we used the building of the project as another opportunity to learn, and the entire experience was a great team building activity.
Whether it's successfully launching a project, completing an engagement with a customer, or your team has reached a landmark point during the engagement, it's important to recognise these moments and celebrate them. These moments only come about because the entire team pulled together to produce the best work they possibly could, and letting those efforts go unnoticed is a sure fire way to leave your team feeling deflated. Whether it's something as simple as a trip to the pub for a few team drinks, or something more extravagant, celebrate the achievements your team is responsible for.
It goes without saying that your team is vitally important. Without them, nothing gets done, so making sure your team feels happy, fulfilled and committed to their goals should be near the top of your organisation's list of priorities. By taking the time to check in with your team and gauge how they're doing, listening to what they have to say and recognising the efforts they're putting in, you're creating a positive environment for everyone within the organisation.