Boosting morale

Engagement: messages, positive or negative, should be shared with workers as soon as possible. Credit: Maersk
Engagement: messages, positive or negative, should be shared with workers as soon as possible. Credit: Maersk
Sharing: there is a need for consistent, open and quick communication with staff. Credit: Gothenburg
Sharing: there is a need for consistent, open and quick communication with staff. Credit: Gothenburg
Paul Matthews
'Bad news travels faster than good news" - Paul Matthews, People Alchemy
Phil Parry
''People will fill in the gaps' - Phil Parry, Spinnaker Global
Number one: morale comes down to ‘what’s in it for me? Credit: APM Terminals
Number one: morale comes down to ‘what’s in it for me? Credit: APM Terminals

Felicity Landon investigates how to keep employee morale up in tough times

It doesn’t take much internet surfing to find unhappy employees (or former employees) keen to tell the world about the perceived shortcomings of their job, their place of work, their management team and their ultimate employer. It’s true, of course, that you’ll also find comments with fulsome praise for that very same place of work – but, let’s face it, the bad stories are more fun to read and tend to be the ones that stick.

In uncertain times, with shipping’s woes constantly in the headlines and job security often up for question, there’s a clear danger that workforce morale and job satisfaction can plummet. It may be the management team that directly deals with the headaches of the Hanjin collapse, for example, but those working on the quayside or in the warehouse can be under no illusions about the potential fallout.

Learning and development expert Paul Matthews, managing director of People Alchemy, says one way to think of morale is that it’s based on the stories that people tell themselves, and tell each other – and the origin of many of those stories is what they get told by the media, and by people they listen to.

“If they have a standard story/narrative that they believe is true, they will then start to disregard any other stories that disagree with the belief. The truth of this belief is, of course, irrelevant,” he says. “So what are the stories? Are they ‘woe is me’, or are they ‘we can tough this out and get to the other side in one piece’?

“If a port is looking to ‘manipulate’ the morale of the staff, it needs to be a source of the stories, and hopefully a trusted source rather than a ‘propaganda’ source.”

Personal impact

It isn’t about sugar-coating bad news, he says – it’s about being honest and transparent, but above all making sure that the stories resonate with the way that the story recipients think and feel. “They are less interested in overall strategy and share price than how a change will impact their access to overtime hours, or impact their pension.

“Morale comes down to ‘what’s in it for me?’. The problem in most organisations is that the senior team will say what has happened but couch it in terms that matter to them and the board room. They will say that shift patterns are changing and it won’t affect pay too much but it will save electricity and other costs. The guy in the fork truck really wants to know – will this change in working hours mean I won’t be able to pick up my children in the afternoon anymore because I won’t be able to work an early shift? The suits have to learn about communication – it is one message for the shareholders but quite another for the workforce.”

Local managers have a massive impact on people’s engagement and morale, Mr Matthews emphasises. “I talk about the ‘superpowers’ of a manager. It is about managers understanding that they do have these superpowers – many are completely unaware of the incredible impact they have on the engagement and experience of people who are reporting to them. Consequently, these powers end up being activated or used, but in a haphazard way. Think of the bull in the china shop – it can walk through the shop and destroy nothing or it can create devastation. Either way, it is completely unaware.”

Most managers describe their job as telling people what to do and they don’t see their job as developing or helping their people,” he says. “This will inevitably lead to poor morale and engagement, which will lead to stories that will develop all around the workplace. Bad news travels faster than good news so even if you actually have mainly good managers and only a few bad ones, you will see the impact.”

Phil Parry, chairman of shipping recruitment specialist Spinnaker Global, believes that the biggest driver both for market conditions and morale is sentiment – “and I see very, very quick responses to changes in sentiment, both in terms of the instructions we receive but also in terms of whether or not we get a flood of newly registered jobseekers,” he says.


It’s not unusual to see a sudden influx of people as they rush to look for new jobs to protect themselves, he says. “So keeping sentiment in the right place is important. I would say the main thing that employers need to do is not to leave gaps which employees will fill themselves with speculation and gossip. Therefore, what you need is consistent, open and quick communication with staff.

“With the best of intentions, employers or managers often say ‘we will tell them in a week’s time or two weeks’ time because … The ‘because’ is often based on very sensible logic, but in fact when people know something is happening - the market has turned down, a ship was due in but has been diverted to another port or isn’t coming at all -  they will jump to their own conclusions.”

The irony, says Mr Parry, is that in such a scenario it is often the best people who will leave first because they are the ones who can get a new job more easily. “So where employers say ‘it probably won’t do us any harm to lose a few people’, the people they will probably lose are the best ones.

“If you have a positive message, get out there and say so. Likewise, if there is likely to be a potential problem, staff are not stupid – they will work it out, so you are better off getting the message to the people you want to be reassured as soon as you can. Sentiment, speculation, rumour ... people will fill in the gaps. Don’t give them that chance. If you have bad news to tell, it has to be carefully messaged – and remember, nine times out of ten, the variation people will make up will be a lot worse.”


Bobby Morton, national officer of the British trade union Unite, claims that the morale of port workers is at an all-time low due to employers pruning core staff and stepping up the employment of agency labour or workers on zero hour contracts, while the move towards automation worldwide is also ‘sapping the morale of workers with an unknown future’.

However, Paul Matthews, managing director of People Alchemy, is less than complimentary about that standpoint, which he sees as confrontational rather than constructive. “There is nothing in there about how to help the situation and work with people in an organisation (workplace) to encourage people at local level and team level,” he says.

“Every team is different – almost tribal. A warehouse on one side of the port estate can be completely different to one on the other side of the same port. Clearly, if there is a difference it means difference is possible. If some people are happier and more engaged and have better morale than others, you need to investigate and find out why – what is promoting that engagement and high morale, and what is restraining it?”

Often, he says, you will find it’s easier to remove the restraining forces than to apply the promotional forces. “If we push a car up the drive, it is easier to take the brick out from in front of the wheel first. So go find the brick and the things causing disengagement, and do something about it.”

Typical bricks? Yes, ‘is my job secure’ overrides it all. But when that gets compounded by little things such as the PPE doesn’t fit and is uncomfortable, the hard hats are the wrong size or the coffee machine is on the blink, it adds to the issues. “People will put up with these little things when everything is going well. But when that is not the background picture, these little things become really important. They become the restraining forces.”

There are other factors too, says Mr Matthews. “If the worst-case scenario is I lose my job, how easy would it be for me to get another job in my area with my skills? If my perception is that this would be difficult, then my perception of the consequences for me personally of the downturn is far greater than if I felt another job would be easy to come by. So morale is also affected by anticipated consequences in terms of the multipliers of probability and impact. And, as a worker, how do I assess probability and impact? I listen to the stories, particularly from people I trust, from people who seem to have it figured out.”



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