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How do I Boost Employee Morale?


March 25, 2021

By Rowan Van Dyk

How do I Boost Employee Morale?

5 min

Employee morale and motivation is currently at an all-time low. Statistics show that up to 83% of employees are not engaged. The global Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown has also had a negative impact both large and small organizations, which has put tremendous strain on budgets and burned out teams. Managers’ levels of satisfaction are at a low and they are battling to keep employees engaged implementing measures that will not break the bank.

New research has shown that there is merit in the power of symbolic awards such as thank you notes, public recognition, and certificates. It was found in studies that these simple measures can significantly improve employee motivation and morale.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians in chapter2 verses 3-4 (NIV), he tells them to.. ”Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” What Paul is implying is that if you want to boost morale, you need to work on your relationships with your team and this would require you to put their collective interests ahead of your own personal interests from time to time.

A recent study conducted by O’Flaherty, Sanders and Whillans in conjunction with a non-profit What Works for Children’s Social Care, researched the impact of sending social workers personalized letters of appreciation to their home addresses. They randomly assigned half of the social workers to receive letters from their direct managers, while the other half did not receive a letter.

The letters contained two sentences of positive feedback: The first sentence was selected from a menu of options such as, “your work has consistently had a positive impact on the children you work with” and“ your continued dedication and hard work makes children and families in the region better off every day,” and the second sentence was written by the manager themselves. In this way, they ensured that the letters were reasonably standardized but still personalized.

The result of the survey showed that one month after this simple intervention, the social workers who received a letter reported feeling significantly more valued, more recognized for their work, and more supported by their organization than those who didn’t receive a letter. There was a positive impact on wellbeing, belonging, intrinsic motivation, and absenteeism for those workers who received letters.

In addition, to helping employees feel more valued and supported, studies have shown that when employees are more satisfied with their organization, they are more productive and less likely to leave, and that recognizing and empowering employees can increase motivation and improve performance across the organization.

We are now entering the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic. The workforce and your team members, especially workers such as healthcare professionals, teachers, and social workers are under more strain than ever. Organizations in every industry are being forced to downsize and restructure, which effectively they have less cash available to support a workforce that is becoming increasingly burned out. How then do business leaders keep their employees motivated?


The answer lies in developing and implementing light-touch, cost-effective interventions designed to promote the overall happiness of team members. Many organizations, especially in the private sector, Still rely heavily on traditional monetary incentives to boost employee morale and performance, but recent research suggests that symbolic awards such as congratulatory cards, public recognition, and certificates,  can significantly increase intrinsic motivation, performance, and retention rates.

The success of implementing these symbolic awards depends on five (5)factors:

1.    A personal touch,

2.    timing it right,

3.    spreading the news,

4.    communicating the details,

5.    and taking small steps.


Fair monetary compensation still has an important place in motivating and boosting morale but symbolic awards, if used correctly, especially when cash is flow is under pressure, can go a long way to demonstrate your appreciation for your employees and keep spirits up.

There are the five key factors leaders should consider when trying out low-cost symbolic awards:


A Personal Touch

The most effective form of appreciation or praise is the actual source. Telling someone “I appreciate your efforts” has a lot more motivational impact than saying “The boss appreciates your efforts.” As a leader you should consider that there may be limitations to the contact you have with employees, especially in larger organization, and that there might not be much interaction between the workforce and senior leaders in the organization. This is where using the notes of appreciation mentioned in the example above can be effective. When interaction is limited due to remote work, positive feedback from key leadership will be especially essential in order to keep socially-starved teams motivated. As indicated in the study, the notes coming from the leader is more important than a general note.

Throughout his tenure at the company, Doug Conant, then the CEO of the Campbell Soup, sent more than 30,000 handwritten thank-you notes to employees and clients. Conant explained that he sent handwritten notes because more than half of Campbell Soup associates didn’t use a computer. This not only boosted the morale of the employees but also increased the performance of Campbell Soup. In2009 when Conant was involved in a serious road accident, he received so many get well cards from employees and clients alike , that his wife had to help him read through them all.


Timing it Right

There is nothing worse than meting out appreciation or praise long after the act has been performed. For appreciation to be effective, it should be given directly after the action is completed.

Furthermore, it is also important to think about when the gesture is likely to have the biggest impact. In the increasingly stressful and unpredictable workloads experienced during the pandemic, daily recognition of the impact of their work could be more effective, while in other environments, daily feedback may start to feel forced or repetitive. Research further suggests that recognizing your employees at the correct time can be particularly impactful at key temporal milestone. A thank you note sent at the start of a new period or positive feedback delivered at the conclusion of a major project can boost morale and bolster motivation when the team needs it most.


Spreading the News

You may have heard the saying” Praise in public and discipline in private?” Private appreciation may be appropriate in some situations, but publicly giving recognition and appreciation, such as awarding certificates during a team meetings or congratulating achievers during production meetings, can often be the most cost-effective way to motivate the entire team. Giving recognition is public has a dual impact in that it not only motivates and boosts the morale of the person receiving the recognition, but it also shows the rest of the team that achievement is recognized and will spur them on to also achieve in order to receive recognition.

However, some studies have found that recognizing employees publicly led to negative social comparison that reduced performance among non-awardees — a “you’re I with the boss” type of mentality is exhibited. It is important how you use the public recognition and what the current relational situation in your team is like. It’s very important to consider both the positive and negative signals that public awards can send to employees, and adapt your praise accordingly.


Communicating the Details

In the same way a customer can tell whether your service is genuine or not, so your team members can tell the difference between a “going through the motions” and genuine appreciation. To make sure your symbolic appreciation is well-received, it is important to pay attention to the details. For example, in the case of Doug Conant – even though it was because most of the staff never owned computers – the letters were handwritten and signed by Doug himself. In the studies by O’Flaherty et al, the letters of appreciation sent to the workers were signed in ink by a direct manager and then mailed to workers’ homes.

Many managers do offer praise and symbolic awards of appreciation, but they make the mistake of simply sending out an automated email where all that changes is the name the mail is addressed to. I have seen the results of this – even I have made the mistake – where the letter is well worded but then the manager forgot to ensure the correct name is at the top of the email and John receives a mail addressed to David. In my experience I have noticed that in many cases intrinsic , non-monetary, rewards lead to significantly more productivity than when they received small financial gifts, extrinsic rewards. Team members somehow feel more valued when they can see that their employer actually takes the time and effort to choose the words and personally deliver the appreciation, which increased their efforts accordingly.


Taking Small Steps

The slogan of small steps to big change was coined by a friend Kenneth Kwan, who has also authored a book by the same title. General Creighton Abrams was once heard saying, “When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.” The point I am trying to get across is that everything that is worthwhile having will always take time. You are not going to change things in your team overnight – it is a long journey – you will have to be patient and resilient to stick with it and you will see results over time.

Implementing symbolic awards in your team shouldn't feel like climbing an impossible mountain, but instead you should put your head down and take one small step at  a time putting one foot in front of the other to reach the top. You may feel at time that you are stepping backwards, but if you persevere and are genuine in your desire to offer symbolic awards, you will in time reach the top of the mountain.

The whole point of symbolic awards is that they’re cost-effective, practically free, easy to implement, and can go a long way when done right. If you’re not sure where to start, try one of the following:

  • Write a short, personalized note expressing gratitude for a team member’s recent good performance. Not an email but a hand written note.
  • When you next have a team meeting, publicly recognize a team member’s contributions to the team.
  • Have a morale-building session, such as a social gathering, to celebrate your team’s successes.
  • Create an “Honour Wall” where you display the photographs of the team members that have achieved various successes for the team.

Remember, what may be effective in one team or workplace may not necessarily work in the next team – even different situations within the same team may differ – so design you symbolic awards with the workplace context in mind for maximum effectiveness. Furthermore, symbolic awards would not necessarily take the place of fair monetary compensation, because in many cases financial incentives can be an equally effective motivator.

When budgets are tight and under pressure, non-financial symbolic rewards provide an appealing and effective alternative to run-of-the-mill financial incentives. Even when funds are available, financial rewards can sometimes come at a cost to the organization’s culture and values as these are short lived and do not always have the same “warm fuzzy feeling” effect that symbolic awards do. In some cases I have experienced, merit bonuses actually reduced motivation and morale due to a widespread perception that the performance levels needed to earn the incentives, were nearly impossible for many team members to achieve.

When it comes to intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, experience has shown that when you are considering any form of reward, it should be carefully thought through. One size definitely does not fit all and in some cases simple, symbolic appreciation such as thank you notes can make a real impact in one instance and then similarly cash rewards can have the same motivating and morale boosting effect on the same team. During these exceptionally challenging and stressful times, a little appreciation can go a long way in boosting morale, especially where telecommuting and work from home is fast becoming the norm and team members need to still feel “connected” to the team.

The thing to remember is that as the leader you cannot do it on your own and you need the efforts of the team – at least show them you appreciate their efforts.

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