What Causes Low Employee Morale? (And How Company Culture Can Fix It)

By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager

You’re finally turning a profit, and business is picking up as the pandemic begins to recede, but something’s off. Even though things are going reasonably well with your company, an undertow of discontent seems to be dragging your team down.

You may notice that many of your team members seem tired, apathetic, and even bored. Gripe sessions are starting to bubble up routinely, and finger-pointing has become a daily sport for some people. Others say little and appear to only be performing at the necessary level to meet job requirements. Perhaps there’s an uptick of people coming in late and calling out sick.   

If personnel problems that used to happen occasionally are forming a troubling pattern—you’ve got a morale issue on your hands.

It’s a problem you can’t afford to ignore.

The Impact of Employee Morale

Employee morale is the satisfaction, attitude, and outlook that people have on the job. High or low, morale affects the quality of people’s work, the level of collaboration with coworkers, and interactions with customers.

When It’s Low

Low morale causes people to make more mistakes, leading to customer dissatisfaction, negative downstream repercussions, and workplace accidents.

People with poor attitudes don’t attempt to be innovative or exceed expectations. They might meet deadlines and finish tasks, but the work is often subpar.

What’s worse, this kind of overall attitude can be contagious. A few glum people can eventually sour a whole team. Ultimately, low morale causes people to become disengaged with their jobs. And a problem with engagement is the precursor to costly turnover.

Poor employee morale is not only damaging to people’s well-being; it can cost companies a lot of money.

When It’s High

On the flip side, a workforce with high morale sparks an atmosphere of excitement and energy. People feel confident, and when they need help, a team-first environment gets them through rough spots.

Employees are better positioned to tackle problems because they come at them with a positive mindset. People are more resilient. Friendships grow among staff members, and even good-natured competition crops up because everyone is inspired to go the extra mile.

Beyond the internal impact, there’s a direct correlation of employee morale on customer relationships and overall service. People with high morale generate the kind of memorable customer experiences that cement consumer loyalty.  

High workplace morale reduces job-related stress and helps employees stay healthier, more productive, and engaged.

8 Causes of Low Morale at Work, and How to Fix Them

Each company workforce has a particular composite of personalities. But as unique as every team dynamic is, the things that cause low morale are surprisingly universal.

Of course, money can affect workplace attitudes in the workplace if people don’t believe they’re adequately compensated. But pay doesn’t play as big of a role in employee morale as some might imagine.

According to research done by Andrew Chamberlain, Chief Economist at Glassdoor, “Across all income levels, the top predictor of workplace satisfaction is not pay: It is the culture and values of the organization.

There’s also an overarching theme in correcting issues that negatively impact how people feel at work: improving corporate culture can eliminate most morale problems.

Here are eight leading reasons behind poor morale:

1. Feeling Stuck

When people stop growing professionally, they plateau and become bored and dissatisfied in what they consider dead-end jobs.

Solution: When employers help staff build their skills and expand responsibilities accordingly, they signify their confidence in people’s potential to contribute. To help people feel like they’ve got momentum in their jobs, offer and promote educational opportunities and add a regular training component about improvement into their schedules.

Helping people develop their capabilities makes them more valuable assets to the company and increases their sense of self-worth and purpose in what they do.  

2. Lack of Clarity

According to a Gallup study, only about half of employees know what’s expected of them at work. Uncertainty about direction and priorities is a significant stress factor that can undercut morale.  

Solution: This problem stems from unclear messaging from management. Supervisors may assume people know when and how to tackle tasks because they have issued a broad directive. But the ability to provide clarity about expectations is a learned skill; it’s not as simple as tossing out some general instructions.

A strong culture program will teach managers and staff how to set clear expectations. It also creates a comfortable channel for employees to ask questions when they aren’t sure what to do. People perform better and feel happier and more secure in what they’re doing if expectations and goals are crystal clear.

3. No Transparency

People don’t like being kept in the dark. A study by Slack shows that 80% of workers want to know more about how decisions are made in their organization. Uncertainty usually defaults to employees assuming the worst, and that can rev up a morale-busting rumor mill. Poor communication between groups and departments is equally frustrating.  

Solution: A policy of sharing information should be part of a company’s culture. When leaders follow this transparency model, it helps diffuse stressful uncertainty and builds trust.

They also set an excellent example for the troops that will filter through all parts of the organization in a positive way. It encourages staff to consider everyone who might need to know information they have, which helps eliminate communication barriers across the board.

4. Not Feeling Heard

Employees who don’t feel free to speak up, or don’t feel “heard” when they do, will feel powerless and unappreciated. These people often develop a “What’s the point?” mindset, and it shows in their mood and their work.

Solution: Stress the art of listening as a vital part of company culture. Teach managers the value of listening to their people and then coach them about how to be effective listeners.

The goal is to create an atmosphere where people are encouraged to express their thoughts and ideas and be active problem-solvers. Doing so not only builds employee self-esteem because they believe their opinion counts; it also generates more creative solutions and strengthens collaborative efforts.

In a fast-paced business environment, regularly hearing employees out may seem like an inefficient use of time. But listening to and seeking input from staff is a win/win exercise.

5. Poor Coaching

When employees receive mixed or uneven messaging from their superiors, they often underperform and then incur the repercussions. It leaves them feeling off-balance and resentful of poor leadership.   

Solution: Often, poor coaching isn’t the fault of managers or supervisors. It’s a structural problem within the company culture that involves two key areas:

    • No process is in place for management to consistently teach employees
    • A lack of tools that enable managers to teach effectively

When managers are provided with resources to be good teachers, they don’t have to figure out how to coach the team. Instead, they rely on a universal approach that is understood companywide. It takes pressure off managers who want to help their people improve, and employees are assured that everyone is tuning in to the same channel.

6. An Atmosphere of Blame

When the knee-jerk reaction to every mistake is to figure out who’s at fault, it creates a hostile environment. It’s impossible to have good morale when blame is rampant within a workforce.

Solution: Create a top-down problem-solving focus within the organizational culture. When teams are encouraged to have a solution orientation, it eliminates the fear and stress of worrying about who made an error. Instead, the emphasis is on how the problem happened—which frequently involves an inefficient process that should be improved.

Making blameless problem-solving a standard operating procedure keeps people from hiding mistakes when they happen and rushing to judge others’ behavior. Instead of dealing with mistakes as problems caused by one person or group, they are viewed as learning opportunities that generate improvements and help everyone grow.   

7. Not Feeling Respected

The level of respect that people feel in the workplace has a profound impact on their morale. A Harvard Business Review poll of 800 managers and employees in 17 industries shows that a significant percentage of staff members who don’t feel respected intentionally decrease their work effort, time spent at work, and quality of work.

Solution: A commitment to treating everyone with dignity and respect must be baked into a company’s culture. Employees tend to mimic their boss’s behavior, so it’s critical for company leaders to set the tone and lead by example.

Respect stems from the human need to feel included and valued. When it’s shown equally throughout a workplace, employees take pride in sharing their talents and are more confident in collaborating. People are happier and work harder when they know they’re held in high regard.

8. Limited Acknowledgment

Global studies show that 79% of people who quit their jobs cite ‘lack of appreciation’ as their reason for leaving. Acknowledgment is that important to people—yet many good workers feel that their best efforts are routinely ignored. If they remain at their jobs, employees who don’t feel valued lose motivation, and their productivity declines along with their outlook.  

Solution: This is one of the simplest problems to remedy, and when done correctly, it yields multiple dividends. Three things are key to providing meaningful acknowledgment:

    1. Be specific. Tell the person exactly what they did that deserved recognition.
    2. Be timely. The sooner someone is recognized for great work, the more meaningful it is.
    3. Explain the impact. Describe how someone’s actions affected others or the company.

This kind of specific recognition resonates with the people who receive it. It inspires them to keep up their excellent work and to acknowledge their peers for excelling as well.

When done correctly, meaningful acknowledgment is one of the most effective ways to reinforce company culture and maintain a high level of morale. Recognition doesn’t take much time and costs employers nothing. But it is invaluable to workers and the overall success of the organization.

Strong Culture Lifts Morale…and Much More   

Business leaders who prioritize organizational culture signal that they care about how people feel about their work and want them to be engaged and happy on the job.

When a culture initiative is done correctly, it’s much more than a well-meaning gesture. It provides a blueprint to reinforce the kind of positive behaviors that generate high morale.

In addition to improving employees’ quality of life, which has a beneficial ripple effect far beyond the workplace, intentionally working to build, improve, and sustain corporate culture is a smart business move.

As author and CultureWise CEO David Friedman explains in Culture by Design, a healthy culture drives an organization’s overall success. He points out that having appealing products and services are the minimum requirements to be in the game in a commoditized marketplace. He writes,

“Companies that thrive year after year don’t win because of what they offer; they win because of how they go about offering it. Real and lasting differentiation comes not from the product, but from the actual behavior of the employees.”

The same culture-driven behaviors that pump up staff morale enhance all aspects of a business. A vibrant internal culture is reflected outward and strongly influences the customer experience and sets the tone for the company’s reputation.

How to Improve Company Culture

Maintaining a strong company culture isn’t done with a series of quick fixes. It requires an ongoing commitment and a conscious effort to forge positive behavioral change.  

The key to a successful culture initiative is a well-organized process, such as the one Friedman outlines in Culture by Design. Using a simple, eight-step framework, the book is a “how-to” guide for building a superior culture.  A free, two-chapter download of this valuable resource is currently available.

The CultureWise program was modeled on the process in Friedman’s book and took the concept to an extraordinary new level. Described as an operating system for culture, it includes innovative tools that deliver an array of content addressing behaviors affecting morale, work ethic, collaboration, and service. Explore the website to learn how CultureWise helps companies go from good to great.  

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