Improving workforce morale: What can you control?

Traitify explores the principles around which the new age of Employee Experience will take shape, starting with an in-depth look at control.

In a time of crisis, attention shifts to revenue loss and the urgent mitigation of economic downturn. The idea of "People Operations" may seem quaint during so much widespread challenge, but dropping your initiatives in leadership development, company culture, and team-building is a risky move. Stress has increased across your staff. Customer demands are changing, and workflow is disrupted. If anything, now is the time to ramp up your efforts.

By continuing to invest time and resources into People Operations, you can do more than merely keep your workers working. You can make your employees' roles a source of strength and fulfillment. You can cultivate the creativity and resilience that your business needs to identify emerging gaps or meet changing demand. This is now the age in which Workforce Morale is a top priority. We'll investigate each of these in turn, starting with perceptions of control today, and following with wellness, adaptability, and calm vigilance in upcoming posts.

Why the psychology of control matters

Psychologists have long identified the importance of "locus of control." The concept refers to where we believe the levers are being pulled, so to speak. Who has the greatest influence? Who drives decisions? Most of us have a framework for understanding control that we then apply broadly. If you have an internal locus of control, you tend to think of yourself as the one who determines outcomes. Specifically, you believe that it's your characteristics — the amount of effort you offer up, your know-how, your natural talents — that are influential.

If you have an external locus of control, you believe the important factors are all outside of your personal reach. It's society that has the most control, or things like luck, fate, or the people around you, whether known or unknown.

Locus of control at work

Consider how this might play out on an individual level. Let's say Nicole is a proposal manager at a commercial construction company. She receives a review designating her as a below-average performer. If Nicole has an internal locus of control, she attributes this outcome to herself. She might recognize that she developed a habit of arriving late most days. Or she'll chalk it up to the fact that she misinformed a major client. Whatever her explanation, the story is about her. She can change the next outcome by changing her own behavior.

But if Nicole has an external locus of control, she thinks the review was due to other factors. Maybe she decides the system is rigged to force too many lackluster ratings, the review missed important details, or her supervisor is not well informed. Those are all influences she can't change, so in her mind, there's little room for growth.

A "forced" external locus of control

Amid the spread of coronavirus, individuals are each faced with a source of major disruption that is not only outside of their control, it's outside the grasp of human control in general at this point. That may be particularly unsettling for some. It may be comparable to the impact of having an external locus of control in routine matters. Along with this comes the risk of depressive thoughts and behaviors, and the reduction in productivity and effectiveness that may result.

So what can business leaders do when their workforce faces events outside of any one individual's control? One response can be to focus on what a single employee can control. Another is to take this a step further, to create new tasks, decisions, and procedures that must be controlled by the individual.


Woman walking during work break

What individuals can control

This first part takes some mindfulness. We can all control our approach to disrupted routines. For example, if working from home, control your workspace. What you do can be quite simple.

  • Position a favorite framed photo or memento nearby to act as a mood booster.
  • Dig out a pair of headphones to help with noise.
  • Stagger daily schedules to siphon off some of the stress of a crowded home.
  • Control your work-from-home break times. A short solo walk is often a better choice for your mood than more snacks or a dive into social media.

For those in workplaces outside the home, there are simple steps you too can take to enhance your feeling of control.

  • Wear hand sanitizer on a lanyard for ease of access. This can help achieve a greater sense of control over your safety, as well as reassure customers.
  • Frequent hand-washing and strict adherence to the six-foot social distancing guideline not only advance public health, they can ease your anxiety about exposure.
  • Opting to wear and replace disposable gloves is another good measure, or wearing a colorful bandaid or a bulky ring as a reminder to not touch your face.
  • Work breaks can also become more of a refuge than usual. Try a brisk walk around the building rather than sitting in the break room, or relax in your vehicle alone.

Put workers in control

Employers can promote a feeling of control among their team members by asking them to make more decisions — in other words, to control more.

  • Have your personnel decide which projects or tasks to prioritize.
  • Put team members in charge of setting their own deadlines. Allow on-site workers more flexibility to choose what to do when.
  • Ask for feedback on procedures and safety protocols. Do workers feel safe? Do they have concerns about what others are doing, or customer behaviors?
  • Consider other aspects of the workday that workers can control. Ask for input on the messaging of emails or signage.
  • Allow individuals to research and order their own work-from-home equipment if they wish.
  • Allow anyone to set a meeting for a remote-work group. Make yourself available to discuss issues with on-site personnel.

There's a classic 1970s psychology study that found that residents of a nursing home fared better when they received communications emphasizing their responsibility for themselves and were given a houseplant to take care of. The idea was that an elderly individual no longer living independently experiences a loss of control and sense of purpose.

As the COVID-19 pandemic plays out over time, every American is experiencing some loss of control. Employers can effectively give employees "houseplants" to care for and decisions to make. This is an easy first step as part of a strategic focus on Workforce Morale. The world may be more unsettled than usual throughout much of 2020, but the workplace can and should be a counterweight to that disruption.

To learn about other principles that can improve Workforce Morale, follow the links below:


To learn how you can boost your Workforce Morale through the power of personality, connect with Traitify.