Internal communication when morale is low

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. The rest just disengage.

Very few organizations can claim a steady upward trajectory of growth and positive results in every aspect of their business. Hard stretches are virtually inevitable. It could be a dip in sales, a period of increased staff turnover, or disruptions in your industry that present real threats to your company’s longevity.

And what do all these things have in common? Change.

change is constant

“Declining morale is usually connected to change in one way, shape or form,” says Kayla Neville, the internal communication specialist on our team at Spur. (You can more about Kayla in the meet the team section of our About Us page).

A sales slump is a change in regular revenue. Staff turnover is a change in personnel. Disruptions in your sector could be everything from new competition to regulatory updates that directly impact you.

It’s no surprise that these kinds of challenges often result in a dip in team morale. Despite hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, humans still haven’t figured out how to handle change gracefully. Change is hard. And when things are hard, energy levels and moods can drop in understandable ways. It’s just human nature – but you need to be prepared to address it.

what to look for

There are a few tell-tale signs of a drop in employee morale.

“First and foremost, staff lose passion or drive and stop participating,” says Kayla. For example, people stop raising their hands in meetings, stop volunteering for special projects and start showing a general lack of interest in the work or their team. They might also seem more distracted. All of these are signs of disengagement, which goes hand-in-hand with low morale.

a woman raises her hand at work

Conversely, some folks get more vocal. “Curiosity is always a good thing,” says Kayla, “but be mindful of passive-aggressive cynicism masquerading as a genuine question. This can be an indicator of low morale, too.”

Finally, look for decreased output – a natural consequence of a disengaged and dispirited group. “Productivity levels can also drop when morale is low,” Kayla says.

what to do

So what should leaders and staff do, when the going gets tough and the team gets deflated? Here are dos and don’ts to keep in mind.

First, universal advice for everyone:

  1. Lead with empathy. Your team members are human beings and emotions are valuable information. Being dismissive of others’ reactions won’t get you far. For example, if sales are down, your sales team might be feeling low. But the person whose product is suffering the most? That would be especially tough to take. Imagine what that person might need to see or hear to feel re-inspired and supported, instead of blamed or scapegoated.
  2. Address the problem – and its complexity. Your business challenges might be complicated, but no one understands your business better than the people that keep it running, day in and day out. Don’t patronize. For example, if a technological change is impacting your operations, don’t assume people can’t understand the nuances. Thinking about what information might actually be helpful to share, instead of “sparing them the details.”

Next, here are a few dos and don’ts for leaders, specifically:

  1. Embrace vulnerability (with limits). Gone are the days when we expect the boss to be unshakeable. This stereotype – steeped in patriarchal notions of leadership – doesn’t imbue trust. Instead, a bit of vulnerability can foster a shared sense that you are all in this together. Be transparent and name the elephants in the room if everyone already knows they’re there. That said – know the limit and stay within it. Admitting to existential dread or a dearth of innovative solutions to lead your team out of a problem will not foster trust – only panic. Be vulnerable and transparent insofar as it helps a team feel supported and see a way forward.
  2. Keep it a dialogue. During a challenging period, some leaders default to doing all the talking. But grabbing the mic is a bad look when other voices should be heard. Create meaningful opportunities to have a two-way dialogue with your team, and listen twice as much as you respond. For example, during your usual all-staff meetings, consider replacing your usual address with a Q&A session on a specific topic, or breakout groups where you can float from conversation to conversation, listening and responding as appropriate. Points of lowest morale are not the time to keep a large team on mute. (If you have tense all-staff meeting coming up, check out the tips in our facilitating tough conversations post).

a diverse creative team discussing design project in modern studio

Finally, let’s talk about the folks with some of the most challenging jobs in these situations – the communication and engagement professionals. No matter how big or small a team, you can always lead your departments through tough times with a few best practices:

  1. Design communication around staff habits, needs and expectations. This golden rule of marketing and communication can easily get lost when folks are stressed, panicky or reactive. But the fact remains: you must conform to your audience’s preferences and limitations. For example, don’t produce an all-staff update as a video if video players are blocked on work web browsers. Don’t schedule an important all-staff update meeting when a good portion of your team needs to be on the frontlines serving customers. Meet people where they’re at, which means the time, space and platform that make the most sense.
  2. Follow up. Tactics like employee engagement questionnaires can be helpful during times of change, to assess pain points and understand what’s most important to your workforce. That said, there’s nothing worse than asking people to take time out of their workday to share their thoughtful input –  never to hear what happened with their feedback.
  3. Get creative. If you’re launching a new strategy to overcome an obstacle for your business, don’t just announce and bounce. Roll out the initiative in a coordinated way across several internal channels. Offer incentives for early pick-up and participation, and find ways to celebrate the quick wins that are achieved right away. And if appropriate, find ways to include your best brand ambassadors on any external-facing components of your plan.

turning grit into glue

When communication and engagement fall flat – or even make things worse – a low-morale work environment can start to spiral. But if approached strategically and sensitively, your internal communication and employee engagement tactics can help your team weather the storm, or even inspire creative solutions out of it. Stress without a clear way forward can tear a good team apart. But stress with good support — including strong communication — can be the glue that bonds a team closer together.

We love working with teams on audits and internal communication and engagement strategies. Learn more about our communication services, here.

Caucasian woman sitting with legs crossed smiling at the camera
Written By:


Natalie has over a decade of experience in strategic communication. She is passionate about powerful stories that inspire positive action.

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