The focus of many organisations across the globe is to reduce cost in an environment where margins are under pressure. Maintenance is an obvious area for cost reduction and will inevitably put pressure on the maintenance team’s morale and potentially over the long term affect the culture.

How do you keep the maintenance team morale positive, focused on the job at hand with a proactive mindset, or are you slipping towards maintenance mediocrity?

Here are 5 tips for maintenance leaders on how to keep their teams positive and proactive and improve performance.

First some theory…


What is culture? A simple definition is “the way we do things around here”. If you want a more complex definition that, in essence, means the same thing, you can define it as “The values and behaviours that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization” (see

What is morale? Simply whether a person feels positive or negative towards an organisation. Alternatively, according to “Psychological state of a person as expressed in self-confidence, enthusiasm, and/or loyalty to a cause or organization. Morale flows from the people’s conviction about the righteousness or worth of their actions and the hopes of high rewards (material or otherwise) in the future.”

How does leadership style influence a team’s performance?

In “Organisational Psychology” (by Kolb, Rubin, McIntyre, 1984) a simulated scenario is described where the effectiveness of 3 different leadership styles were compared. Three teams were established and the members of each team were matched in terms of age, gender, background, motive patterns and personalities. The teams were given basic construction tasks to perform over a period of 2 weeks. The leaders in each team were given clear instructions on how to lead their teams:

  • Leader of Team A: Regimented, structured, controlled, procedural and criticizing in the event of poor performance or failure.
  • Leader of Team B: Informal, avoid conflict or punishment, warm friendly environment, personal relationships.
  • Leader of Team C: Informal, set high expectations, encourage innovation, reward excellent performance, encourage cooperation and have fun.
AchievementsTeam A
(regimented, cold)
Team B
(informal, warm)
Team C
(informal, high performance)
New products (innovation)LowMediumHigh
Cost saving (innovation)NilMediumHigh
Job satisfactionLowHighHigh

It is clear that Team C outperformed the other teams significantly. Given that the teams were matched in terms of capability, the major difference was the leadership style. Even though this experiment was done over a period of 2 weeks, the difference was significant, which indicates that results can be achieved in a short period.

Here are a few practical tips on how to apply the principles of the leadership style used by team C.

Set high expectations and provide purpose

As a leader, you need to have an idea of what your team need to achieve, otherwise known as objectives. Objectives and measures are important to show direction but it is also important for the leader to link this to the bigger goals of the organisation and thus demonstrating to his team that they are contributing to something bigger, to achieving something great.

In their article “How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation” by McGregor and Doshi in the Harvard Business Review, one of the key areas that motivates employees is to have a clear view on the purpose of their work. The article ask the question do you motivate your team by telling them to perform because “the boss said so” or because “it supports the company to grow” or “provides a better outcome for customers”. 

This assumes you as the leader have set, and understand how the objectives of your team link to the organisational strategy or objectives. For the maintenance team the objectives could be captured in a Strategic Asset Management Plan (SAMP) or a Maintenance Strategy. For example, an objective may be to reduce maintenance cost by 10% over a period of 6 months or to improve equipment availability by 5% over the same period.  Measuring progress and expecting progress require discipline from the leader and without a dogged determination to improve the team will again lose focus and this will affect their levels of motivation and performance. Do you as a leader follow up regularly on progress on towards your strategic objectives or are you snowed under by the day-to-day? This may affect your team’s morale, culture and performance.

Setting high expectation is not only setting the target and leaving it there. It is then asking the questions of each team member or work group how they plan to contribute towards this improvement through efficiency, innovation and cooperation. The team then need find solutions to issues that are preventing them from achieving the objectives. Yes, the leader may contribute ideas, solicit external assistance or challenge the status quo but should also expect the team to come up with innovative plans and solutions that are of a high standard.

The leader needs to paint the bigger picture of contributing to or achieving something great, set clear objectives, expect high (realistic) performance and challenge the team to achieve it though innovation and collaboration.

Encourage cooperation

Cooperation is an important ingredient for finding balanced solutions but also contributes to the morale of the team and building of trust between team members, teams and departments. This applies to solving day-to-day issues as well as coming up with solutions in order to meet strategic objectives.

“Common sense is not so common.”


Although we employ a team of smart and experienced people, we do not always make the right decisions; in fact, sometimes we make blatantly wrong decisions. This happens especially in complex situations that present many problems and many potential solutions. In his article “Why Smart People Act So Stupid” Dr Travis Bradberry refers to a study done by Shane Frederick at Yale University on why rational thinking and intelligence do not tend to go hand in hand.

His conclusion is that smart people have the tendency to blurt out the wrong answers. They tend to take mental shortcuts and do not always work through the problem systematically. Not to say we are all geniuses, but over time, we tend to fall back on what has worked for us in the past. A good way to reduce the effect of taking mental shortcuts is to encourage cooperation within the team and with the broader organisation. How many times can the maintenance efficiency be improved through involving the supply department in the discussion? How many times are solutions embedded in someone that is not part of the discussion? Encourage and reward cooperation, e.g. ask the question “That is a great idea but who did you discuss it with? What did the XYZ department say about that?” If people are tuned into the bigger goal of making a difference in their organisation they will soon realise they will need the support of other people, teams or departments to make solutions balanced and improvements successful.

Encourage innovation

As a leader, you need to encourage your team to do things differently. As seen in the results of the case study challenging the team to innovate and trusting them to come up with solutions contributes to higher performance. In addition, many improvement opportunities are locked up in people’s everyday experiences but they possibly do not believe it would work or that anyone would listen to their idea. Harvesting these ideas could assist your team to make significant improvements. Capturing ideas, supporting the implementation and rewarding positive results will drive a culture of innovation. Do you have a way of capturing improvement ideas and prioritise them? Are you willing to spend money or time to support the implementation of new ideas? Are you tracking the benefits and rewarding results?

Doing things in a different or new way is usually risky and success is not always guaranteed. You need to accept failures and learn from it. Criticizing the first failed innovation project will stifle the generation of new ideas. Why not, as the leader, choose one of the easy initiatives and support the team to make sure it succeeds?

If you are new to innovation, a useful approach for the identification and implementation of innovation ideas is the process of “Design Thinking”. It was developed by Stanford University as a structured means to solve problems and implement solutions.

In short, the process follows 5 steps: Emphasize (understand the issue), Define (the problem), Ideate (Focused idea generation), Prototype (yes before you design in detail, start building a prototype) and the last step is Test (to test if the solution resolves the problem). Innovation is usually associated with brainstorming sessions that lead nowhere, the idea here is to have a problem well defined and then focusing the idea generation on solving the problem. Innovation for innovation’s sake will not add value; it needs to contribute to the greater good aligning with business objectives.

Reward the right behaviour

A standard reward system is made up of 4 areas; compensation, benefits, recognition and appreciation. Nobody will work for free but monetary recognition is not the only motivating factor. Recognition and Appreciation are important factors especially when company margins are under pressure. Rewarding the right behaviour is key to keeping the team positive and embedding the right culture. It also results in higher performance and employee satisfaction as can be seen in the case study.

What is the difference between recognition and appreciation? Appreciation is the general acknowledgement of sustained (longer-term) performance over a period e.g. “well done on your contribution towards making the plant more reliable”. Recognition is the praise of a specific (shorter-term) desirable behaviour being exhibited e.g. “well done on involving the supply department to improve the way we prepare for a specific task”. Both recognition and appreciation are important. Do you have a special segment in your monthly meeting to recognise specific behaviours, e.g. a trophy for exhibiting the best teamwork/collaboration or a trophy for the best improvement ideas?

In their article “Bonus time? – Research shows it’s better to reward groups than individuals” Wilkinson, Ladley and Carley Young have proven through research exactly what it says in the title. A common misconception is that creating competition between individuals within a team will encourage performance but this study has proven that rewards based on the team’s combined performance produces much better results. Even poor performers may play an important role in the functioning of the team and play a part in the team being successful. How much do you focus on individual performance and how much on team performance? Should the trophy go to the team or to an individual? Individuals need to be recognised for exhibiting the correct behaviours and the appreciation needs to go to the team for their combined performance over a period. Should teammates nominate each other for these awards?

Some maintenance rewards systems use KPIs that may drive the wrong behaviour. Take schedule compliance for instance, can it drive sub-optimal behaviour? What you are trying to measure in a maintenance organisation is for example that people are spending their time (a) doing maintenance in order to prevent future failures or (b) executing well-planned corrective maintenance work. Could they be doing ineffective ‘preventive’ maintenance that is not only using up their time but also not preventing anything? The right team behaviour would be to ask the planner to adjust the frequency or remove the ineffective tasks. Schedule compliance will not always reward that behaviour. How about measures around hours of wasteful activities eliminated, number of potential failures identified or eliminated, hours of downtime prevented? Are we celebrating or rewarding those behaviours?

Let it be said that some KPI’s, like schedule compliance, lays a foundation of discipline that is required in any organisation and without which not all of the above will succeed.

Have fun and do good

Richard Branson’s motto is “have fun, do good and the money will come”. See the article by The Economist.

Having fun is not always something that can be maintained day in and day out but making time for it is important. Work also needs to have elements of fun. Whether fun is weaved into problem solving activities or as social events outside of work is probably not important but it needs be planned for and executed. During the work week space can be created through weekly or monthly workshops that focus on learning from team members or doing things differently.

For us, we do have fun through sport or special activities, but we have the most fun when working together on community engagement projects.  It not only binds our team closer together but we also create a sense of team achievement, the satisfaction of helping others that may be less fortunate and creating some lasting memories. The photo above is of one of our community engagement projects showing us applying skills that are clearly not in our normal job descriptions. Fun needs to be weaved into work by creating events that people will look forward to and get an opportunity to build team spirit and trust.


Keeping the morale up and building a high performance culture goes hand in hand and the same set of tools can be applied by maintenance leaders. The leadership style followed during a time of cost cutting or efficiency improvement can significantly boost the morale of a team and create a lasting performance driven culture. If you as a leader are uncomfortable with using any of the above techniques, read up on it, attend training, give it a go or seek help. The old ways of leading a team using command and control will still get you from A to B but there is a clear case for expecting high performance, encouraging innovation and teamwork, trusting the team to come up with solutions, rewarding the right behaviour and also doing good and having fun.

Do you think your team can do with an injection of positivity? Contact us here.

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