Over the past several years I have personally visited more than 85 mission offices across North America. In so doing, I couldn’t help but notice that they come in all sorts and sizes, ages and make-ups. Some have facilities that are brand spanking new, while others are antiquated and “tired.” Some have large staffs, others small, and still others are just a one-person operation. Some are strategically located, while others are found well off the beaten path. Some give a tangible impression of welcome, others less so.
Despite their differences, there is one trait common to all: the elusive yet discernable awareness of staff morale. Yet even that comes in a variety of manifestations. As one might expect, some mission staffs have a noticeably strong level of enthusiasm. They evidence a workplace where people are valued, feel appreciated, are well informed, and believe strongly in their cause. Others do not. The morale in some workplaces is flat and perfunctory, with little zeal for the work. Still other environments feel dull and lethargic.
What’s the difference? The variance between a healthy, wholesome work environment and one that is not, is found in the leadership of the president or CEO. The CEO ultimately shoulders responsibility for the morale of his staff. Yet too many executives deflate their staff and then deflect the blame to someone else. It is much easier to hold the HR department culpable than to take responsibility for the problem.
Based on my personal observations and conversations with a number of home office personnel, I offer the following 10 morale busters that most dishearten staff members:
- Lack of Trust: Too many leaders, especially new leaders, do not make deposits in the proverbial “bank of trust” before they begin to make “withdrawals.” Many leaders believe that since they have been given a title, a certain amount of trust automatically comes with it. That assumption could not be further from the truth. Trust is earned over a period of time, derived from a track record of good decision-making and interpersonal familiarity. Staff won’t follow well if they don’t trust their leader. Undertones of distrust will reverberate through the office. If, on the other hand, trust is strong, leadership will be accepted and approval will be voiced.
- Constant Yet Directionless Change: The CEO who shows up every Monday morning with a different plan of action deflates a staff that is still working on implementing last week’s big idea. Constant change causes constant anxiety in the ranks. In order to cope, the staff will simply ignore new directives, knowing they will be changed again soon. In the meantime, everyone feels miserable because nobody knows where they are really heading.
- The Phantom CEO: Some mission CEOs travel so much, the staff never knows when they will show up in the office. Others, taking advantage of modern technology, reside far from the office and only occasionally make an appearance. I know of one mission executive who shows up one week a month at the office and spends the other three weeks at home literally three thousand miles away. Although today’s technology can fill in a communications gap, it does a poor job of replacing leadership by presence, example and modeling the way. There is a tendency to think the worst of someone you seldom see.
- Micro-managing: This CEO style is the opposite of the phantom CEO. He can’t keep his hands out of the mix once a task has been delegated. Instead of asking for periodic updates, the CEO inserts himself in the process – many times behind the back of the person who was entrusted with the task. This is certain to frustrate and deflate the non-empowered staff.
- Heartless Managerial Dismissal: This involves the swift and unanticipated dismissal of staff, who are often asked to leave the building immediately upon termination. Managerial acumen and common Christian graces are difficult to balance even in the best of times. But when office members are treated as a disposable commodity that can be terminated at a moment’s notice, it places everyone on edge. Job insecurity makes for low morale, thus the importance of performance reviews. Properly implemented, a review helps staff know how their performance is perceived and becomes the basis of job security. (See my previous blog: “Smart Leaders Back up.”)
- Power Distance: Some CEOs prefer to keep their distance from staff, and prove it by where their office is located. Whether it is an intentional show of status or simply the floor plan of the building, in many instances the CEO’s office is tucked away from those he leads. I recall visiting a mission where the CEO and his wife had offices in a separate high profile building surrounded by the less impressive buildings of the support staff. To meet with the CEO, staff members left their buildings and walked outside to the prominent executive building. Distance alone sent a signal as to who was in charge and how approachable he was.
- Corporate Jargon: When it comes to identifying the facility in which staff work, it would be helpful if missions gravitated away from the corporate and military jargon of by-gone years. The designations “headquarters,” and “home office,” carry an air of centrality of power. This puts undo pressure on the staff who are required to raise either a portion or all of their support, since churches and supporters naturally assume that if the mission “headquarters” employs their missionary, then it must also salary them through the corporate system. A more appropriate name for a mission facility is “ministry service center” or better yet “mobilization center.” This puts it in the ministry realm – and rightfully so. When you stop and think about it, every person in the “home office” (and every function carried out) mobilizes something that relates to their mission. Staff mobilizes fund, personnel, prayer, meetings, connections, and everything else related to the sending of missionaries. It is a morale booster to everyone in the mobilization center to know that they are performing their tasks for those serving cross-culturally.
- Huddle Time: Whether it is called “chapel,” “prayer time” or “team meeting,” every office needs at least one time a week designated for the entire staff to meet together corporately. The wise CEO makes sure that such a time is a non-negotiable part of the schedule. It needs to be considered the focal point of the workweek for the staff – including himself. He models its importance by his consistent attendance. This is the time for information sharing and prayer, togetherness and harmony. It builds rapport, cohesion, concern, and trust. It can also be a place for encouraging and rewarding staff. I have noticed that some missions hold huddles five times a week, some three times, and some only once a week. The frequency is not as important as the fact that it does take place.
- Strategic Plans vs. Strategic Initiatives: Planning for the near and far future is a major responsibility of a CEO, though iron-clad, straight-jacket “strategic plans” have become a thing of the past. The speed of change in today’s world is so accelerated, how can any mission perfectly plan for three, five, or ten years out? Forging ahead without flexibility puts a staff at a tremendous disadvantage. It frustrates the thinking, cutting-edge, versatile staff member. Thus the prudent leader plans in terms of strategic initiatives when projecting the future. In this way direction is given, but flexibility and course corrections allow for better navigation of the changing times.
- Duty vs. Desire: Wise leaders motivate their staff to fulfill the role to which they feel they have been called. Rather than performing out of a sense of duty, the engaged staff person sees the bigger picture and desires to do his part to fulfill that greater goal. The wise mission leader ever keeps the mission (and a vision for the mission) in front of his staff members. They sense that they are part of something bigger than themselves, something meaningful to God. This, in turn, helps ward off the hollowness of routine. A clear vision inspires passion for the work.
So there they are – common morale busters that deflate a staff and create a miserable workplace. Effective executives should periodically do an “Office Morale Inventory” by identifying in which of these they are weakest. It takes concerted effort, but corrected morale busters always result in effective morale boosters.