Morale: a moving target

2014

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people complain that “morale just isn’t what it used to be.” Pretty sad sentiment, but is it really possible that morale can get worse year after year? It reminds me of the story of grandma and her famous cookies: Grandma baked cookies with her special hand-me-down recipe for the grandkids for over 20 years, but with each batch she’d proclaim, “This batch isn’t as good as the last.” Well gee, grandma, after 20 years of steadily declining cookie quality, these things could kill me.

The reality, in either case, is that the conditions probably didn’t change all that much. Grandma’s cookies are most likely the same now as they were 20 years ago. Instead, it’s the expectation of the environmental conditions that changed. We humans bore easily. A sociological truism at the workplace: what is radical today is taken for granted tomorrow. What we think we know about morale is probably wrong, especially the black and white comparative that morale is either good or bad. Like most human feelings, morale is a moving target.

A Modern-Day Review: Morale

I love reading ancient leadership literature. (Ancient being anything written before 1939. Sorry, granny, don’t mean to suggest you’re ancient. And, to those of you who scoff at my more modern review of things like leadership and morale, I don’t mean to ignore the really ancient literature, but I can only cover so much in 1,000 words.)

Pre-WWII, morale was studied independently of other factors like productivity, workmanship, and turnover. A 1941 discourse on morale referred to it as a ‘deep-seated control of the energy that goes into action’. Heavy stuff (although I’m not really sure what it means).

After the war, the need to understand what morale really was in the context of the workplace skyrocketed as ex-military personnel flooded factories in often less-than-stimulating assembly line jobs. Research methods became more sophisticated and the subject of morale was no longer discussed in relationship vacuums but explored in context of other factors, such as feelings of well-being, satisfaction, empowerment and freedom of thought.

What seems like second nature today was germinal then: that good morale correlates to positive results, physical and emotional well-being, and productive social relationships; bad morale correlates to reduced job effort, commitment and satisfaction, increased absenteeism and higher turnover. In reality, of course, workplace mood shifts back and forth between good and bad.

Morale and Productivity

Shortly after the war, when researches began to discover that bad morale was bad for business and good morale was good for business, they began testing ways to improve morale. The drivers of what we call good morale were thought to be working conditions like empowered workplaces, fair and ethical policies and, most importantly, supportive boss behavior. Leaders changed workplace conditions to push the power of group success and individual and group satisfaction.

Digging a little deeper, as morale changed from a subject matter all by itself to something more integrated with other factors, researchers broke it down to base categories of things like job demands, working conditions, communication, benefits, security, inter-personal relationships, confidence in leadership, and opportunity for growth. When morale is good, employees are predisposed to support each other and common goals.

Maintaining Good Morale

What does all this mean for employees? Defining what morale is and isn’t and its relationship to other factors is all fine and dandy, but definitions alone add nothing concrete about keeping moods on the positive side of the happiness graph. After all, as we learned earlier, grandma’s cookies are apparently never as good as the last batch.

What’s going on with the never ending battle for good morale is a human predisposition to study the negative. We look for things that aren’t working. We don’t see the 25 beautiful rose bushes in the yard. Instead, our minds focus on the one dead plant. Instead of focusing on what makes bad, bad, we should spend more effort discovering how good becomes good and aim to spread that knowledge elsewhere. Spend time with the exceptional employees, learning what makes them tick and see if anything you learn can be spread to others. Help them develop their talents so others may see.

Boss Behavior: A Mantra

Now, I return to my mantra, all this talk about morale boils down to one primary factor: boss behavior. Boss behavior is what establishes culture, and the best cultures for morale are friendly, supportive, collaborative and fun. Bosses need to test common knowledge, to try new things, and to look at the workplace from their employees' frames of reference. They need to walk the floors, to hang where the people hang, to envision the world from worker perspectives.

Sorry, there’s no such thing as ‘X easy steps to effective leadership’. Leadership is an endless analysis of the constant ebb and flow of the emotional and social signals of co-workers and employees. Listen to the real messages coming from the ranks to keep those cookies as fresh and tasty as ever.

“Morale and attitude and fundamentals to success.” [Bud Wilkinson, coach and broadcaster].

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About The Author

Duane Dike
Duane Dike

Duane Dike is the manager of creative production for a large entertainment company in Southern California. He has a doctorate in management and organizational leadership and an MBA in management. He is a popular guest speaker for education and management groups on subjects related to innovation, leadership and thinking.