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October 3, 2000 8:17 AM CDT

Jobsite Morale

Taming the beast

By

You Thought You Had It Nailed...
Work is steady. Profits are respectable - even accounting's running smoothly. You've sweated and slaved for years to get your company to this level and you finally feel like you're to the point where most of the technical details have been addressed.

But, something's still wrong - something you can't quite wrap your arms around. Lately, you've noticed that your people on the jobsite seem to be complaining a little more than before. You've also heard (third-hand) some negative remarks about the company (and you) - remarks attributed to some of your own men.

And it got worse. Last night, the owner of one of your projects called you at home to complain about the attitude of one of your people on the job. Clearly, this isn't good!

Don't Panic. You've merely come face-to-face with that mercurial and mystical monster known as - Poor Morale.

The Danger Of Poor Morale
There's no business problem more ethereal - and more damaging to profits - than poor worker morale. An employee's attitude about work blends with every other aspect of his ability to perform. Getting a handle on this attitude is the tricky part - and a formidable challenge to even seasoned business owners. After all, tangible items can be addressed. If the copier breaks - you fix it - and when office supplies run out - you replace them. Right? It's not so easy with morale. Morale flickers, weaves, and dodges at every turn. Workers can be content on Monday and disgruntled on Thursday. And even worse - the cancer spreads. A young employee hears the older one criticize management. The younger worker, wanting to be accepted and looking for some common ground with his coworkers, begins echoing the sentiment - and so on.

Time goes by and soon the only thing the business owner does know for sure is that efficiency is suffering, negativity is spreading, and somehow he's found himself sitting smack-dab in the middle of a situation that seems to be spiraling out of control!

But, what do you do? You're a contractor - not a psychologist!

Well, there are some things you can do. Simple, focused, and yes, even economical things.

A "Real" Problem
You've all heard the old saying, "just knowing you have a problem is the first step in becoming well." Well, it's no different with morale. The subject of morale shouldn't be ignored. It also shouldn't be left alone to "work itself out." It won't. As a matter of fact, it will probably only grow worse with time.

The owner-contractor needs to acknowledge that morale and employee attitude are tangible, addressable concerns - one more aspect of doing business that (just as a copier requires service) requires a well structured, focused, and consistent program of morale maintenance - not just a one-time fix.

Of course, the human psyche is unimaginably infinite in design and complexity. Attempting to discuss even a fraction of what motivates and stimulates the minds of workers would require volumes - hardly containable in one magazine article. But we can, however, discuss a couple of straightforward methods for corralling morale. Methods that are well within the grasp of the average owner.

Get the Word Out
I've never been one to call a lot of meetings. I don't like them. We're contractors and contractors make money by contracting - not meeting. But in this case, I think it's in order. Call a meeting of your employees. Tell them that the express purpose of the meeting is to discuss morale and attitude - nothing else. Let them know that (for at least this meeting) you want them to be open, candid, and honest. Explain that you're simply trying to understand the situation you now face and that none of their comments will be held against them - and then honor those words. Now, yes, things might be said that hurt other people's - or your own - feelings. That's OK. It comes with the territory. You're all grown-ups and, anyway, thick skin is one of the building contractor's greater attributes. Besides, isn't it better to air grievances in a controlled, level, and open forum as opposed to out on the jobsite in front of your customer?

Listen
This next part is important. You need to listen to what they have to say. Some suggestions will be good, some bad, some petty, and some stupid. Don't panic and don't take anything personally. You'll very likely be surprised by what you hear. There really are some very bright and enlightened people working out there - even those that you never thought possessed a "high-concept" kind of minds.

Discuss their comments openly and (for those ideas you feel are worth considering) set specific goals to address and/or remedy any negative situations. This shows your people that you take their input seriously. Also, by letting your workers air their concerns and convictions, you have (perhaps unwittingly) taken your first step towards empowering your employees.

Empowerment
I'm a strong believer in empowering people. Empowerment is the act of giving some level of power to your employees. In the old days, it was known as "delegating authority." Now, I know this can be very difficult for some of you owners. It can be very difficult to let go. It's understandable. After all, you've built this baby from the ground up and there's naturally a strong emotional attachment.

But by empowering others, you not only improve the self-esteem and self-worth of your employee, you also free yourself up to explore other avenues (marketing, expansion of territory, philanthropical endeavors, etc.), making your company even stronger.

But by empowering others, you not only improve the self-esteem and self-worth of your employee, you also free yourself up to explore other avenues (marketing, expansion of territory, philanthropical endeavors, etc.), making your company even stronger.

Empowerment means giving your employee (perhaps a superintendent) more responsibility and decision-making capabilities. By relinquishing just one level of your total command, you're telling the employee that you acknowledge his skills and abilities. Pride can be a strong motivator.

By realizing that now it's his decisions and actions that affect the end-product, he'll, more often than not, become more responsible, more inventive, and more attentive to his work. In addition, he'll become more proud of his role with the company - and more proud of himself as a human being !

Reward Programs
It's hard to talk about improving morale without discussing reward programs. People are people and, like it or not, there are few things on this earth more motivating than being rewarded for a job well done. And that's how it should be. If your employee does work above and beyond the call of duty - he should be rewarded.

Now, if you've read other morale articles, this is the part of the article where I'm supposed to say, "but there are methods of reward other than money ...".

Wrong! Money is a grrreeeaaatttt motivator. Given the choice between my boss's praise and $500 "gimme" the $500!

But seriously, if you're like me, your absolute first priority in life is to provide for your family and praise doesn't put food on the table! Praise and small rewards are fine, but don't fool yourself - money is what people long for. But it's not just that. From a business perspective, I cannot think of a better place to spend money than on the self-esteem and the future motivation of an employee. That employee's attitude is very arguably your greatest avenue (and roadblock) to your ultimate goal - obtaining profit - and yet, so many employers hold back when it comes to handing out the checks. Why?

That's a tough one - and varies from personality to personality, but here are a few things I've noticed: Unfortunately, if we're being honest, one of the biggest reasons bonuses aren't handed out more often is simply due to greed and/or ego by the owner. It's sad, but true. Try to take an honest look at yourself. Are you one of these guys ? If the answer is yes, then my experience is that you'll probably never change ... and probably aren't reading this article.

Another (twisted) bit of reasoning I've heard through the years is this concept of "parity" among the employees. This incredibly tainted logic goes something like this: "Yes, I know you work harder than the rest of the guys - and I know you've developed better skills than the rest - but if I gave you a bonus, I'll have to give all the other employees a bonus. It wouldn't be fair!"

Huh ? Where's the motivation to do your best? Where's the encouragement to be the best you can be? All this program will accomplish is a swift and unwavering death-march toward mediocrity - an adventure into the ordinary. Is that the kind of business you want to have ?

The Bonus
Let's talk about the bonus itself. Over the course of my career in construction, I have witnessed owners who - while never having paid a dime in additional incentive to deserving employees - easily and without trepidation spend money on the following (and, unfortunately, I'm not making these up!):
  • $900 on one potted plant.

  • Hundreds (thousands?) of dollars on sporting and theater tickets.

  • $450 on a painting for the office.

  • Thousands on software programs and computer accessories that never made it out of the box.
... and much, much more.

I think you get my drift. Now, if I see these things, what makes you think your employees don't see these things?

A Call to Action
Don't let yourself fall into this trap. Morale can be addressed, contained, and turned into a positive, profit-making tool for your business. You only need to want to. On the other hand, time passes quickly and employee disenchantment is only growing stronger.

Take steps right now to increase employee self-esteem. You'll need to use your own judgment as to what best works for you and your situation.

Remedies can be as simple as a company sponsored dinner, picnic, or outing. How about an offering to pay for athletic memberships or sponsor a company softball team? Pay for their schooling. Send them on a seminar. You're truly only limited by your own imagination. Build a bond with your employees. Let them know you consider them as much more than just mere "tools of the trade."

Now, this doesn't mean you have to agree with everything they say - you're still the boss. But you may be surprised. There are some sharp people out there. By letting this cream-of-the-crop control a little bit more of their own destinies (and relieve some of your responsibility), you're not only improving the value of a company - you're also improving the value of a person.


About the Author

With over 25 years in construction, primarily as an estimator and project manager, Steve Saucerman now writes, speaks and consults for the construction industry. He also teaches part-time in the Building Construction Technology division for Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill. He has published two books and over 350 articles to date and his writing is featured in construction periodicals all over the world.

 

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