Low Morale: One of the toughest challenges for the CEO (or Board)
Companies go through periods of high stress caused by growth, transition, or financial troubles. Stress leads to low morale which is one of the most insidious problems to isolate and cure. The CEO and/or Board must filter out the noise and select the path which is “right” within the corporate culture, which requires accurate, honest, and realistic feedback from employees. Unfortunately, the CEO (and Board of Directors) is always the last to know the true inside story from the employees’ perspective. Each layer of management and supervision filters out a percentage of the truth, when truth is defined as the consensus perception, attitudes, desires, and ideas of the employees.
No amount of best-seller consulting gimmicks or re-engineering formulas can overcome the fundamental forces of human nature at play in the workplace: politics, gossip, fear of losing one’s job, territoriality, and hoarding of information. When these forces lead to a morale climate so bad that it causes employee turnover, mistakes, and loss of productivity, it can spread like a virus if not identified and checked.
Root causes of low morale are often revealed by peeling back layers of issues that have built up over time. Some scenarios involve a few bad apples of the company, often at the highest levels, and often the CEO and Board of Directors are looking for confirmation of what they already suspect. That confirmation is found in the collective voice of the employees, so at this point it is time for management to simply listen to what employees are saying. To promote an unrestricted flow of feedback (ideas, concerns, grievances, perceptions, fears, and attitudes), the CEO and Board are better served to engage a third-party “listener” that employees will trust.
Employees will reveal the truth
A third-party listener functions not as a consultant, psychologist, or investigator, but simply a trusted liaison between the employee and CEO/Board. This requires someone that has the knack and credibility to relax people, gain their trust, and listen to what they are saying. In a low-morale environment, employees are desperate to talk to someone who will simply listen and clearly deliver their message to the CEO/Board in a way they never could in person.
The listener serves at the pleasure of the CEO/Board and interviews a subset of the organization’s employee base. The interview list can also include managers, executives, the CEO, directors, shareholders, customers, partners, and suppliers. The listener should routinely sign a non-disclosure agreement to safeguard the privacy, security, and intellectual property of the company.
The listener establishes a good-faith contract with each interviewee that guarantees confidentiality. There are no written notes taken during the interview and there is no recording of the conversation. The interview should be held in a private room off the beaten path where employees will feel comfortable. The typical interview lasts one hour or less.
After the interview process has run its course, the listener consolidates the conversations into an oral report to the CEO/Board that does not reveal any names of employees, and is free of any interpretations and recommendations unless specifically requested. The listener then destroys any written/digital notes that she or he may have created outside the interview process and will forever maintain the confidentiality of the employee names and information.