Get to the Root of Low Morale and Improve Employee Attendance Problems

No matter your role or your seniority level, how people show up—and if they show up—has a tremendous effect on morale. Unhappy workers are less productive, and high absenteeism (chronically missing work), only makes relationships among team members or within your department more stressed.

Absent colleagues also affect your bottom line. According to “Absenteeism: The Bottom-Line Killer”—research done by the workforce solution company Circadian—unscheduled absenteeism costs roughly $3,600 per year for each hourly worker and $2,650 each year for salaried employees. With hourly workplace absenteeism rates ranging from 5%-10% on any given day, those costs add up quickly.

The biggest problem is that costs (and not just financial ones) snowball over time, with absenteeism and low morale creating a cycle for low productivity. For example, it’s difficult for members of a team to go above and beyond expectations when they are waiting on results from an absent member, or worse, have to cover for that member’s tasks instead of making more progress on their own goals. Resentment builds, especially if managers don’t address the issue.

How to Improve Employee Attendance Problems

Getting to the root of low morale is crucial—and it can be tricky. The group’s low morale may be the reason for an individual’s absenteeism. Or, just as likely, the individual absenteeism is creating rifts among the team, which is lowering morale. Increasing numbers of absences among team members or regularly calling sick (never accruing leave) are two of many signs that a problem exists. To uncover the underlying reasons, managers need to be able to talk about the issue openly and in a way that will land positively with the often absent team member—and other members on the team.

Good managers take low morale and absenteeism seriously, because when addressed early and often, it precludes larger breakdowns in departmental or even company culture. But it’s equally true that good managers also fall prey to inertia when it comes to tough conversations. That may be partly because their own style of leadership might be contributing to the problem or even triggering conflict. This possibility must be part of the discovery. In our work at Core Strengths, preparing for these kinds of conversations is a target of our work in talent effectiveness.

When we coach managers, we start with personal assessment data about what motivates them and each member of their staff. Then we ask how the chronically absent (or unhappy) team member’s motivation and strengths stack up to the manager’s (because styles can clash). We also ask the manager to examine whether the core motivations of that person are being met. For example, if the person’s reason for showing up every day involves the satisfaction he gets from being on a team and supporting others (a Blue motivation in the Core Strengths lexicon), yet that person is rarely part of meetings, a manager might start by adjusting that person’s role to include more team activity. If another often absent employee is motivated by the potential for advancement (a Red motivation), yet the role doesn’t offer that upward mobility, the manager would do well to discuss this disconnect openly—and coach the team member to better performance so that she might qualify for a more upwardly mobile position.

In some cases, absenteeism is caused by personal issues that a team member may be reluctant to discuss, such as health problems or challenges with children, elderly parents, or other family members. Reaching out and starting a conversation that is unthreatening will greatly lessen the burden on the team member, and together the manager—and even other members of the team—can come up with short-term solutions that allow the burdened employee a chance to address personal issues, without suffering in silence and allowing resentments to build among co-workers. Simply showing care, as a leader, is a potent way to quickly improve the manager’s relationship with their team.

When the problem is clearly not the leader but a dysfunction within the team itself, we work to open up relationships among team members. We begin by dividing up the team by motivational type, where they discover that there are others on the team who share their reasons for showing up each day (and it’s often not someone they would have guessed). When the whole team reconvenes, there can be a healthy discussion about these similarities and differences, not only in motivation but also style of communication (the two go hand-in-hand), creating new channels of communication that were previously nonexistent.

We see again and again how this open discussion using a common, non-judgmental language leads to a team culture where people finally discuss the elephant in the room (absenteeism and low morale being only two of many types). This immediately leads to less avoidance of work or of particular people—and greater shared understanding for the periods in life we all undergo where we really must spend time elsewhere to be our best at work.

How to Discuss Absenteeism With an Employee

Here are some of the conversations to have as a manager or as a colleague to break the ice and uncover the real reason your team is dealing with either absenteeism or chronically low morale:

  • First and foremost, if you are a manager and your relationship with your team has negative aspects, address them by beginning to build a foundation where your direct reports feel understood and valued by you. Ultimately, they must feel safe enough to share their thoughts and feelings so you can get to the root of low morale. Coaching (whether in-person or through a platform) can go a long way in preparing you to have the conversations needed to make this shift.
  • Gather basic attendance data and book some non-threatening one-on-one time with affected employees to broach the subject of absenteeism. You might lead with a line as simple as: “I’ve noticed that you are regularly absent three days a month. I care about you and wonder if there’s anything else going on that I could help you navigate through here at work.”
  • Conduct an anonymous survey about morale, including questions about what people want to achieve as individuals in their roles. Give your team the chance to truly speak up about what matters to them. (This can also be done in a 360-style meeting, but sometimes first getting a sense of just how rough the waters are is a good idea.)
  • Provide continuing education or offer for people on your team the chance to attend a conference of their own choosing (given the subject matter also benefits current team goals). Education might not always be in the budget, but it can have a huge ROI in terms of gaining insight into the direction your talented people would like to take their careers and how your department or organization could benefit from investing in their dreams.

Software Teamwork: Taking Ownership for Success

Software Teamwork:

Taking Ownership for Success

Published 2008

Jim Brosseau has decades of experience teaching and consulting with the SDI. Chapter 9 of his book, Motives and Expectations, explains how and why the SDI is an important part of understanding and improving team dynamics. Jim currently teaches at SFU’s Beedie School of Business in British Columbia, Canada.

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When relationships work, there isn’t a problem that can’t be solved.

Increase Your Stature as a Leader—Past, Present, and Future

Whether you lead from the C-suite or in a daily team stand-up, your people look to you for the information they need to do their jobs, recognition for the work they’ve done, and a clear vision of the path to achievement. When there is not enough communication, or worse, a disconnect between what you’re saying as a leader and what they are hearing, your leadership stature gets diminished. That is unfortunate for you, but the real cost is its effect on company performance. And yet this kind of poor communication is highly common.

According to a poll of 2,000 people working in a variety of industries across the U.S., only 31% are satisfied with the quality and quantity of communication in their organizations. By any measure, that’s a failing grade. In Dynamic Signal’s Annual State of Employee Communication Study, researchers found that 80% of respondents felt stress as a result of poor company communication, 70% felt “overwhelmed” due to fragmented messages and a lack of clear direction, and 60% were simply unhappy at work. If we stopped there, we would conclude that conditions are ripe for disengagement, absenteeism, and higher health care costs. But there’s another one that has the potential to devastate the bottom line: 63% of study participants were seriously considering quitting because of poor communication in their current workplace.  

When you think of great leaders, what they are known for is great communication. No leader ever turned around a company or their team’s quarterly performance by keeping a low profile. To engage people and lead powerfully, you must treat every conversation as an opportunity to communicate with that person or group as clearly as possible, framing your message in a way that increases its likelihood of not just landing, but landing well. 

Similarly, every conversation or Q&A must also be viewed as an opportunity to actively listen to what your people have to say. They know aspects of your business more intimately than you do, and you will build both their confidence and your stature by tailoring your communication to the people with whom you’re speaking. 

Some types of leaders resist this idea. I am who I am, they can take or leave it. That’s limited thinking, and frankly, it no longer works. Teams now change and reconfigure in the course of a day. People work not only within their department but across departments, and this reality is only a microcosm of what occurs at the organization level across the globe. Talent is sophisticated, consumers are fickle, and no one has time for one-note leadership that isn’t attuned to the power of winning over an audience and engaging their energy and attention.

So how can leaders become more sophisticated in tailoring their message and actively listening to their constituents? The answer is relatively simple: By efficiently learning more about the individuals they lead, particularly their motives (why they do what they do) and strengths (when they feel at their best). Know these two items about the people you need to influence, and you’ve been handed the keys to the communication kingdom. 

These keys are the reason my work with leaders starts by making the results of a strengths-based personality assessment available to leaders about themselves and every member of their team. With an efficient, mobile-friendly app for sorting the results data, leaders can do three powerful things with this information: 1) understand where perceptions of another person were off target and reframe what may have been a negative assumption; 2) tailor their messages to make every moment with a person or group audience more masterful; and 3) align future expectations more clearly, so that everyone feels comfortable on the same page—and powerfully led.

Let’s look at each of these areas more closely:

  • Past experiences. A history of poor communication often boils down to poor relationships fraught with misunderstandings and one-upmanship. Facing or avoiding those people is a constant drain on a leader’s energy and effectiveness. Leaders who try to bend everyone to their own will or way of doing things are undermining performance, morale, and progress (yes, all of them) every day. Strong leaders, by contrast, understand that their role involves getting the best out of many different types of people. By gaining insight into the motives and strengths of your people, particularly those you struggle to influence or even connect with, you can see beneath the surface, viewing them more closely to the way they see themselves. This perspective lets you reframe past experiences because you now understand why your approach to this person or group was either tone deaf or misperceived.
  • Present interactions. Now that you know the motives and strengths of others, you have the ability to make adjustments to your approach the next time you meet. We call this ability relationship intelligence: you as a leader can now adjust your communication style for the benefit of the relationship and getting work done. Granted, the other person or group may still harbor past resentments, but when they experience a different type of interaction with you, the shift to a more positive reception will be both visible and palpable. The truth is that people want to like their leaders, most want to do great work for them, and a single positive encounter can make all the difference in their engagement and performance. (Consider the alternative, which is more of the same, and you’ll quickly understand the immediate benefit.)
  • Future expectations. A reframing of the past and a more positive interaction in the present immediately affects the future. Not only is communication now able to flow more freely, but both leaders and their teams have a brand new opportunity to get much better at articulating goals, aligning them, and actually achieving them. Sharing knowledge of motives and strengths—between leaders and individuals—allows for a deeper, more meaningful discussion about how people can give their best while meeting the needs of their colleagues and the challenges of their own role. It is here, in these moments of honest, clear communication, where a leader gains stature: not only in doing the hard work of motivating people to achieve results but in gaining their respect as a leader who understands them, values their contribution, and deserves their best effort.

How to Make Recognition Meaningful to the People Who Need It (Everyone)

Nearly everyone wants to be recognized and rewarded for a job well done. I know I do. When I’m recognized, I feel better about myself, more connected to my colleagues, and more committed to the task at hand. Positive feedback puts a spring in my step. 

My experience isn’t unique either. In fact, Maritz Research found that employees who receive recognition are:

  • 5 times for likely to feel valued
  • 7 times more likely to stay with the company
  • 6 times more likely to invest in the company
  • 11 times more likely to feel completely committed to the company

For bigger projects, exceptional results, or when extra work was involved, the research showed that expectations about recognition were far more nuanced. For most people, it’s almost never just about more money; instead, it’s about feeling valued. But people value different things about themselves, which means understanding the personalities of the people involved plays a big part in recognizing them in ways they’ll find meaningful. 

For example, the Deloitte findings showed that some people wanted their teammates to be recognized with them because they viewed their own accomplishments as the result of a team effort. Others wanted to be recognized by being given an even more challenging project or stretch assignment, while others were looking for visible acknowledgment in front of as many people as possible.

Another important aspect of recognition is a demand from the new majority of the labor force, Millennials, who emphasize the community aspect of their workplace, including acknowledgment from peers and team members. Ryan Jenkins, writing in Inc. magazine, says that making “recognition programs more social and peer-to-peer will win over Millennials.” Echoing this fact, Toni Vranjes, writing for SHRM’s HR Magazine, says employees value peer recognition as much—and in some cases, more—than hearing praise from their manager. While tangible results are still somewhat mixed on formalized peer-feedback programs, it’s clear that being able to give and receive feedback positively within teams is a new requirement for talent retention.

If only there was a way to understand what individuals value, what motivates them to perform so that recognition—both top-down and peer-to-peer—could be an effective use of the company’s energy, time, and money? OK, I teed that up, but there is something that can solve this problem: Relationship Intelligence.

You’ve probably noticed (or if you’re lucky enough, experienced first-hand) that high-performing teams have great relationships. Members know one another—and recognize one another—at the core. This doesn’t magically happen. They’ve done the hard work of understanding their differences and adjusting their personal approach to one another because they care about their team and its outcomes.

When this doesn’t come naturally (and let’s face it, it rarely does without some help), sharing the results of a personality assessment and learning what motivates leaders and their team members can go a long way to building a culture of recognition that works. I’ve contributed to the evolution of the Strengths Deployment Inventory, or SDI 2.0, for several years. It provides a common language for understanding what’s important to people, and it measures the way each person uniquely values three core motives. By employing a simple and memorable guide, any leader or team member can gain a window to what drives that person and how to tap into it. It’s even available as an app. 

The important part is that by creating this foundational understanding among people, recognition not only becomes something that can be tailored and thus more meaningful; it can become a part of regular communication. Imagine the impact of not only meaningful but regular recognition to people’s commitment, happiness. Just imagine the spring in their step.

Dr. Mike Patterson is a principal at Core Strengths in Carlsbad, Calif. and teaches in the doctoral program at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. He is also the co-author of Core Strengths: Results through Relationships training and the book, Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places (Jossey-Bass). Contact him at