The concept of employee morale has intrigued me, and I’m sure others, for many years. Perhaps it’s been interesting because morale is so difficult to define. Or maybe because managers in spite of the fact they think it’s a good thing and would like more of it, most have no clue how to create it. Or could it be that morale is interesting because it cannot be managed? Regardless of the reasons, morale remains a largely unknown and misunderstood concept among managers.
I read an article several years ago that defined morale as, “A sense of shared direction, or the enjoyment of succeeding in group goals.” I once had a professor in graduate school who defined morale as the product of team spirit. My good friend and colleague Dr. Marshall Sashkin once described organizational morale as “The existence of managerial fairness in a climate where employees feel valued, productive and satisfied.” If I were forced to give a definition I would say that employee morale is a condition where employees feel recognized for good performance, appreciated for their contributions, receive appropriate and timely feedback for their efforts, and feel reciprocated trust from both management and other employees.” How’s that for a lot of psychobabble? Now you understand why it’s been said that psychologists speak a foreign language.
Regardless of the definition, it’s not difficult for most people to recognize when an organization has high or low morale. Over time most observant people become experts in sensing when morale is present. When you walk into a retail store, how long does it take before you clearly know if the employees in that store want to be there, or have to be there? When you encounter any direct customer contact employee, in person or on the telephone, how long before you know: have to or want to? Only seconds, right?
Many years ago I visited a number of supermarkets with the Senior Executive Vice President of the company for which I worked. I learned many things from this person, but one of the most significant things he taught me was what he called “taking a store’s temperature.” As he entered a store he would stop about 20 feet inside the front door for about a minute and listen, or “feel” as he said, to the temperature of the store. When I first saw him do this I wasn’t sure what was going on. But then he explained that the best way to take the temperature of a retail store was to listen to it. He said this was more accurate from a long-term perspective than looking at the monthly profit and loss statement. Not sure exactly what he meant, I asked what he could hear when he listened. That’s when he said, “Happy, satisfied and productive employees create a sound that is much different from the sound made by unhappy and unproductive employees.” He maintained that the ability to hear the difference was a critical skill in managing a multiple store chain.
So for years I have done the same thing and take the temperature of the stores I visit. And sure enough, stores with high morale sound different than stores with low morale. Now I agree that this technique is highly unscientific and obviously arbitrary. But it does provide a quick assessment that is reasonably accurate. I suggest that you give it a try.
The Genesis of Morale
Where does morale come from? Is it simply the product of team spirit, or is it something else far more complicated? Another critical question must also be how is morale created? Sometimes considering an opposite question and answer can narrow the desired answer down. For example, an airline currently under bankruptcy protection recently wanted to improve the morale of its flight attendants. The method used was to hold meetings of about 200 flight attendants at a time and try to cheer them up. In carefully orchestrated meetings complete with much fan-fare, exciting music, fancy food, and considerable alcohol, the airline executives explained that their goal was to create a friendlier atmosphere and happy employees. This they felt would help them solve their serious financial problems. Then they explained to the flight attendants that to accomplish this goal there would be more “ghost riders” on planes to catch flight attendants making mistakes so they could be summarily terminated. A ghost rider is an airline term similar to a mystery shopper in the retail industry.
Isn’t surprising that most of the flight attendants reacted badly to the meetings and the threat of “be happy and friendly or you will be fired.” There isn’t much difference in the airlines message than the poster that reads, “Firings will continue until employee morale improves.” Although the airline had good intentions in staging the meetings, the people planning the strategy must have believed that morale could be purchased with a fancy meeting and legislated through threats and intimidation. Or is it possible the planners thought that fancy food and drink would give them permission to issue the threats?
Technically, it’s not possible to manage morale because morale is the product or result of many other things. In other words, other things must happen before morale can occur. But it is possible to manage the many other things; so indirectly, so to speak, it is possible to manage morale.
Although there are perhaps dozens of things that contribute to a state or feeling of morale, a few most notable ones can help a manager create that climate. Research indicates that the number one management practice that can generate improved morale is effective communication. That’s no surprise, but keep in mind that few managers have been trained in communication, coaching, listening and leadership. Another element that drives morale is leadership effectiveness. The more effective the employees perceive their leaders to be, the higher morale they tend to have. A climate of mutual trust and respect where employees can count on their managers being fair, reasonable, predictable, approachable and credible can create feelings of morale. When managers organize their activities and prioritize their responsibilities so that tasks can be delegated to employees, those employees demonstrate higher levels of morale. A climate of empowerment where employees are given authority to make decisions and have influence over their work conditions can generate morale. A collaborative managerial style where managers take the time to ask employees for their input, suggestions and opinions can generate morale. And, of course, when employees believe they are fairly compensated they tend to have high feelings of morale.
So what is employee morale and how is it created? The answer is far more complicated than can be explained in one short article, but the answer is important enough for every manager to strive to understand.
Remember, a condition of high morale is not determined by what a few executives think is happening in the organization. Rather, a condition of high morale is determined by the collective perceptions, beliefs, experiences and feelings of a critical mass of the people who snake up the organization. When management and leadership practices value the people and act accordingly, then morale is possible.