When Leaders Don’t Listen: Why Poor Morale Persists Despite Employee Rewards

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by Jim Murphy

-Not listening takes many forms.  One the most prevalent and most dangerous is when we decide things for other people instead of letting them decide for themselves.  The following example, though not from healthcare, will probably resonate among those in the group.

The director of a nonprofit, a self-conceived “strong leader,” implemented of a plan to improve morale, which everyone from top to bottom in the organization agreed was poor.  Every employee received a free cake on their birthday.

The result was that the morale problem worsened.  Everyone complained.  Some did not like cake, some were on a diet, some did not want to be reminded that they were a year older.  A common reaction was “I’d rather have a raise.”

The director’s next approach to the morale issue was to give employees a day off and take them on a boat cruise.  This proved to another way to lower morale.  No one had a good time, some people missed the boat, the food was bad, etc.

Naturally the director felt that the employees were ungrateful.   When morale is bad, senior management generally blames it on bad employees or thinks that the employees are being bad.   Of course that is absurd: it is the job of senior management to provide good morale and if morale is not good, that is because senior management is not doing its job well.

Had this leader been a listener, she would have realized that she was giving employees rewards they did not want.  Indeed, in such cases, anything senior management does or offers is going to criticized and resisted.

If you want rewards to be appreciated, you have to listen to people to know what they want.  If you want morale to improve, you have to listen to what bothers employees.

In this case employees felt that they had no control over their work – the number one source of bad morale.  Workloads were increasing, roles were confused, and management was perceived as playing office politics.

The only way such grievances can be addressed is for management to listen to the employees.  Indeed, no rewards program is likely to succeed if the rewards are determined by management rather than by those who are receiving them.

And after all, what does it mean to offer people a cake or a cruise? It is treating people like children! (Yet even good parents know that asking kids what they want works better than choosing for them.)  “I’ll give you a cookie if you clean your room/get your task done on time.”  But any organization that treats workers without the respect due to educated adults is going to have a morale problem.



Jim Murphy has a solo consulting practice called Management 3000, focusing on organizational development and change management. Formerly he led the Massachusetts Bay Organizational Development Learning Group, was Human Resources Director for the City of Boston Assessing Department, and served as a consultant with the Boston Management Consortium.  His consulting practice includes management coaching as well as research and writing on employee relationships, leadership, healthcare and collaborative practices.  Having produced newsletters for several organizations  and being a frequent content writer for the”Confident Voices in Healthcare” blog, he is interested in writing and research opportunities, as we all consulting and coaching.

www.manage2001.com   jim@manage2001.com





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One Response to When Leaders Don’t Listen: Why Poor Morale Persists Despite Employee Rewards

  1. Beth Boynton says:

    Thanks for this clear, strong and important message for leaders about listening.

    I have found over and over again that human beings want to be heard. Validating another person’s perspective as part of respectful listening seems like a way to honor someone’s very humanity. And NOT listening or NOT validating is a ignoring it/her/him.

    There is a big misconception that validating someone means you have to agree with them or do what they say. I think some leaders may not validate others b/c of this worry.

    But all validation is, is feedback that you hear what the other person is saying.

    As a separate step, aside from any rewards, this one action will go a long ways to diminish power struggles and build alignment.

    Here’s an example:
    Employee: “I’m allergic to cake. I’d like to get an additional two weeks of paid vacation in addition to my annual raise.”

    Leader: “I can understand you wanting additional vacation and hear that you are asking for two more weeks. I’d love to be able to give it to you, but it isn’t feasible in our budget. We do have enough to give everyone a small token and thought a birthday cake would work. Do you have an other idea in the 10-15 $ per EE cost range? Or perhaps you’d like to give your cake to someone else?”

    Something like that. The difference is that the employee gets to be part of the process and have a voice in what happens. It is so simple, so important and so elusive!


What are your thoughts?