4 Factors that Cause Low Morale (and What to do About Them)

Published March 18, 2019

Peter is the executive director of a not-for-profit that works with homeless people. The organization’s focus is transitional housing, recovery and vocational programs and job employment. The success rate of the program is over 70 percent, which is incredible considering the challenges the homeless face.

Though Peter’s organization was hitting high numbers, he came to me, frustrated with the toxicity of his employees. He was bothered by the high turnover, low morale and low ratings by HR in exit interviews. He would lie awake at night, wondering what was wrong. The vision was clear, funding was plentiful, strategies were successful, yet the constant turnover of employees made him doubt his leadership.

At a very insightful two-day retreat, we identified four factors that were contributing to low morale and high turnover.


1. Lack of Trust

Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare. -Patrick Lencioni

Though everyone believed in the vision and had huge passion for the mission, many felt they were operating in silos and people were in it for themselves. Motives from superiors were questioned and bottom lines and numbers were more important than people. I encouraged Peter to take his teams through the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. This book describes how trust is the foundation for producing organizational health that leads to organizational growth.

Trust is the foundation for producing organizational health that leads to organizational growth.


2. Lack of Energy

In the minds of great managers, consistent poor performance is not primarily a matter of weakness, stupidity, disobedience or disrespect. It is a matter of miscasting. ― Marcus Buckingham

During the retreat, I met Sarah, who worked in the recovery part of the program. Sarah had a huge passion for helping people overcome addictions. She had a natural gift to be in front of people and an ability to rally people around a cause. She could energize a room.

When I asked her what she loved most about her job, she said it was working face to face with the clients. When I asked what frustrated her the most about her job, it was how she spent most of her time filling out detailed paperwork to secure grants and funding. Sarah was wired up for people not paperwork. She loved what the organization did but was discouraged by the role she was assigned. She was thinking of looking for other work. I found Sarah’s example common within the organization.

When we work in areas of our passions and strengths, there is a natural sense of energy and excitement. When we work in areas that are not our strengths, we get drained and disillusioned quickly. I recommended that Peter take his team through Now Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham. This book helps people find their top strengths with a goal is to work in them 80 percent of the time.


3. Lack of Positive Attitude

Attitude: It is our best friend or our worst enemy. Life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent of how I react to it. ― John C. Maxwell

Peter had to own this one. He had a way of focusing on what was not working and not celebrating what was. A leader sets the tone. A leader looks at problems as opportunities. Without problems, we need no leaders. When a leader’s attitude is, “Challenges are just opportunities to get better and do something great,” teams begin to live that out through courage and boldness.

When a leader becomes negative, teams avoid problems and failures and quickly become discouraged. My challenge to Peter was to read John Maxwell’s book The Power of Attitude and to begin to own the fact that he is the number one determiner of healthy attitudes in his teams.

Attitude: It is our best friend or our worst enemy. Life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent of how I react to it.


4. Lack of Mobility

As we spent time during this retreat, I observed one more thing. Many employees felt there was the inability to grow and advance in their skills and careers. Most of the people leaving Peter’s organization did not feel invested. They felt stuck with no ability to expand their career. In fact, there was an underlying feeling that they would be penalized if they talked about future goals or dreams. There was an underlying fear from Peter’ leadership team that if they invested in people, they would leave, and other organizations would benefit. The truth is, when people feel their organization is interested in their personal and vocational growth, they stay.

When the retreat was over, Peter and I discussed what I discovered, and he was open to the changes that were necessary. We put together a healthy TEAM strategy to move them toward positive, organizational growth.

Trust: Build it
Energize: Get people in the right place
Attitude: Build positive attitudes in challenging times
Mobility: Grow people in their careers and life

A year later, Peter’s TEAM strategy is working. He’s not only keeping his best team members, he has less turnover. Energy and morale are high. Employees who leave comment in exit interviews that they appreciated the effort of leadership in investing in their personal and vocational growth.

Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results. ― Andrew Carnegie

About the Author
Ken Burkey

Ken Burkey

Executive Director


Ken Burkey is the executive director of Live58 fosters collaborative partnerships with local churches to develop focused strategies to better position themselves to serve the poor effectively. Prior to his role at Live58, Ken was the senior pastor at Green Valley Community Church in Placerville, California, for 23 years. He is the author of the book, The Power of an Orange Chair: Anecdotes, Stories and Celebrations of an Isaiah 58 Church.