If we want to “raise morale”, we need to name the real problem first
“Low morale” and “workplace bullying”. If you’re a nurse-leader or educator, these are words to make your heart sink. They rear their heads in every group of nurses, and fighting them is a constant uphill battle.
What can you really do? You have to be all things to all people—listen to complaints, nod your head in all the right places. Report incidents and get bogged down in paperwork. Wait for the next spat or the next unpopular decision from management and start all over again.
Is there a way to break this cycle? I think there is, and it starts with naming and shaming the real problem.
Naming the problem
If you name the problem as “bullying”, you’ll approach it as a disciplinary issue. You’ll get stuck in a cycle of investigating bad behaviour and filling in incident reports. But if the people involved are deeply dissatisfied at work, the behaviour isn’t going to go away. We label it as “bullying” because we don’t know what else to call it: when it comes down to it, it’s cynical, moody people being mean to each other. Nurses aren’t going to start being nicer to each other until they start coming to work happier. So maybe it’s a question of morale.
This problem we call “low morale” is hard to fight. The solution is to try to “raise morale”, but this doesn’t work long-term if there’s an underlying attitude of discontent. Something will always happen to bring morale down again. It can almost become a weapon nurses yield to punish the organisation: “We didn’t like that decision from management. Now morale is low.”
I’m not dismissing the issue of workplace bullying; if people are being mistreated at work those incidents should still be dealt with appropriately. And I’m not saying that team leaders shouldn’t be trying to keep morale high.
I’m saying that as leaders of nurses we need to name and shame the problem correctly if we want to have a hope of fighting it. What if “bullying” and “low morale” are just symptoms? What if we called the problem “poor culture”?
“They screwed us over again.” “That won’t work.” “We can’t do anything about it.” “Nobody listens to us.” This isn’t just a morale issue; this is an underlying culture of discontent and disempowerment. If nurses learned to speak to each other in a way that wasn’t so short-sighted, it would be a big solution to that ever-present “low morale”.
Recently I read a book called Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, who has a great TED talk also. He breaks workplace culture down into five ‘tribal stages’. From what I’ve observed, many nurses are finding themselves firmly in stage two (which prevails in 25% of workplaces): this stage is characterised by apathy, feeling like a victim and being suspicious of management and resistant to new initiatives.
Many organisations make the mistake of trying to sell their people on stage five when they’re only in stage two or three. Most ‘tribes’ can only see one step beyond themselves. So the task of team leaders and educators is to get the nurses on the floor to think just a little bigger.
This is what I’m passionate about: shifting workplace culture so that nurses can see beyond their current issues and connect to a bigger picture. My goal is to develop both clinical nurses and nurse leaders to empower their teams to help lift the culture, level by level. The result: happier workplaces, motivated teams, lower incidences of bullying and higher morale.
Need empowered communication to rid ourselves or poor morale?