For Higher Morale, Think Maslow
More specifically, if you want higher employee morale and greater employee engagement, think of Maslow's "other hierarchy."

Awhile back, I heard Gary Hirschberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm, refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy of…Grumbles. I laughed, thinking he had put an amusing spin on Dr. Maslow’s famous hierarchy. To my surprise, when I returned home and scanned The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, I discovered he actually wrote about such a thing.

As I read about his theory, it made me think about one of the major points I’ve tried to impress on managers throughout the years:

You MUST connect employees to the big picture if you want:

- Less negativity and “sweating the small stuff” in your workforce.

- Employees to act like they own the business
– i.e. show maximum engagement, productivity, initiative, and commitment.

- Employees to respond to difficulties and challenges with—what Southwest Airlines calls—a Warrior Spirit.

When employees feel connected to the big picture, when they feel they are contributing to something valuable, it unleashes tremendous vitality and builds powerful resilience.

Here are three quick examples:

An HR manager share with me at a seminar her puzzlement about how her workers seemed to get along better during their high pressure season.

During their peak season, the holidays, everyone was engaged in an “all hands on deck” effort to deal with this dramatic increase in production. Everyone, including the president, would roll up their sleeves and make it happen.

“Why would they get along better during such a stressful time?” she asked.

When You’re Working on “Big Stuff” You Don’t Sweat the “Small Stuff”

It’s a classic example of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Grumbles in action. Because their employees were focused on a cause, their attention wasn’t focused on “the small stuff.”

Because they had a challenge to rally around and everyone played a part in making it happen, it brought out the best in them. It brought out what Southwest Airlines calls their Warrior Spirit. There was no time for—or interest in—petty disagreements or personality clashes.

Their attention was at the higher end of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Grumbles. Their concerns focused on meeting customer demands, not on whether their team mate took too long on their coffee break or whether their department works harder than another department.

It’s Not Just About Making Sales, It’s About Bringing Joy

Here’s another example of an employer consciously connecting their people to a sense of meaning and purpose.

At the Container Store, new employees watch a video explaining that the primary goal of every employee is to bring joy to their (primarily female) customers by helping them bring more organization and less clutter to their lives.

Notes their CEO, Kip Tindell: “We want her doing a little dance, actually, every time she walks into the closet.”

Think of how feeling that they are responsible for that worthy mission—bringing joy into their customer’s lives—would naturally bring out an employee’s “Higher Self” more readily than if employees see their job as just a job. Think of how employees with this mission in mind are more apt to notice opportunities to delight their customers and spend less time focusing on the little annoyances that are present in any job.

When Is a Housekeeper Not “Just” a Housekeeper?

One of my favorite examples of helping employees connect to the deeper meaning and value of their jobs, comes from Chip Conley of Joie DeVivre Hospitality. At his Joie De Vivre, they make sure their housekeepers—often an undervalued part of a hotel’s workforce—recognize how important they are:

“We bring in small groups of housekeepers from different hotels and we ask them to talk about what would happen if they weren't there each day. Carpets wouldn't be vacuumed. Trash would pile up. Bathrooms would fill up with wet towels. Then we ask them, based on these answers, to come up with alternative names for housekeeping. The suggestions are always great: "serenity keepers," "clutter busters," "the peace-of-mind police." At the end of the exercise, these workers develop a very real sense that the experience of the customer would not be the same without them. And that gets to a sense of meaning in your work that satisfies that high-level human motivation.”

To Apply This:

1. Find out if your employees truly understand the big picture: what you’re trying to accomplish, what challenges you—and therefore, they—are facing.

2. Ask them what aspects of the big picture they would like to know more about, and via what channel(s).

3. Use this information to upgrade how and how often you communicate with your employees.

4. Whenever you communicate about new initiatives or challenges, ask employees for ideas on how to accomplish your goals and address your challenges.

5. Make sure you paint a vivid picture of how each department, team, position, and employee matters, how they make the big picture possible. You can take this another step as one hospital did and encourage each department to come up with their own meaningful mission statement.

6. If you’re a senior leader, become a better story teller. As the authors of Influencer: The Power to Change Anything admonish: Don’t just tell the punch line or take away message. When we tell people a brief synopsis of something we’ve thought deeply about or had a profound experience of, we fail to transfer our inspiration and conviction. The best way to transmit our passion and communicate the import of something is to tell your story. The more vividly you describe the challenges you face and the outcomes you’re striving for, the more inspiring your message becomes.