What is morale anyway?

High morale is more than mere enthusiasm. Find out how other factors come into play in shaping your team's morale.

In today's overworked, high-stress IT environment, managers must deal with constant "morale" problems. The "do more with less" expectations established by the productivity gains we provide the company exacerbates this situation as we fight for more staff and resources to cover basic operational tasks. However, as I learned much to my chagrin early in my management career, the umbrella concept of "morale" does not provide us with an adequate tool to analyze employee behavior.

On my first project as a manager—a simple deployment—I sensed my team was not entirely happy with the situation. They worked hard, but without the sense of enthusiasm I thought appropriate to high "morale." Toward the end of the project, as their dedication waned, I threw a lot of hours into task-oriented management to ensure the work finished on time and under budget. My managers commented to me on several occasions about the "slipping team morale," but finishing the project took priority over "fluffy things."

During the end of project review the team gave me extremely high marks for leadership and low marks for matching their work and personal goals to the project tasks. They only worked as hard as they did, they indicated, because they liked me and wanted the project to succeed.

In a classical sense, this slightly dysfunctional team possessed a considerable level of morale, defined as "a strong sense of enthusiasm and dedication to a common shared goal that unifies a group." They wanted me to succeed and sacrificed themselves to ensure that I did. However, my management saw the frustration and annoyance on the team's part as a sign of "low morale;" that is, they saw the natural reaction to giving up something (in this case, time) as a sign of something wrong.

How could a team simultaneously have high and low morale? Maybe the problem lies not with the word, but rather with our understanding of it?

More on morale

A discussion about a new report on morale dropping to an all-time low in the IT field provoked responses from dozens of TechRepublic members. As a result, we've created this article and these resources to help boost sagging morale:

Let's redefine morale

Classically, the concept of morale includes several key components: enthusiasm, dedication, a common shared goal and unification. When all of these elements work in synergy, we claim a team has high morale. When they do not, or when they unify the team in a direction we do not approve of, we say a team has low morale.


Enthusiasm forms the first and most obvious of morale's elements. If our team members come to work with a song on their lips and bluebirds flying over their heads, we think the team possesses strong morale and a great team spirit. Less extreme (and likely less medicated) signs of enthusiasm include positive conversations within the cube-farm, spontaneous group activities, positive reinforcement for activities from within the group, and a stable unwritten code of professional ethics.

Countless books, speakers, and professors proclaim foolproof formulas for creating enthusiasm. However, all tricks aside, the simplest way to generate enthusiasm for a project or goal is to show the team member how the work will further his own personal or professional goals. Everything else, from charisma-based rabble-rousing to teaming exercises, can have lasting effects if we proceed from this foundation.


Dedication forms morale's second element. Dedication involves committing to particular course of thought or action. This commitment provides the team with a driving strength to overcome obstacles when things go wrong. We generally assume people must display enthusiasm to remain dedicated to a particular goal. This attitude might hold true for young children, but adults display considerably more complex behavior patterns. The commitment to accomplish a goal carries the team long after enthusiasm for the goal wanes. Teams working in this mode often display a no-nonsense, work-oriented approach to their tasks. They do not often chat among themselves and work communications may become strained over time.

A team running in a "dedicated" mode for a long period of time can burn itself out. Expending time and energy without enthusiasm for the task wears away at the team's reserves until they have very little left. This tears apart the informal social fabric of the team, damaging communications and destroying the sense of common purpose essential to team work.

Common goals

Common goals, morale's third element, are endemic to teaming approaches; indeed, they form the backbone of the team. In many organizations the team's goal defines its organizational position: operations, project, application development, quality assurance, architecture, etc. When the team works towards a shared goal, it can receive the positive reinforcement that leads to enthusiasm and renewable dedication.

However, goal setting requires more than just a steady hand and a clear vision. The team's goals should in some way align with team members' personal goals and the business's goals. This action feeds back into the creation of enthusiasm and the long-term support of dedication as described above.


We must establish agreement among the members about the team's actual goal. We are trying to align some number of individual life goals with seemingly arbitrary and abstract business goals that may come into conflict with one another.

Unification, morale's fourth element, presents us with more complexities and problems than the other three combined. We can create an environment in which our employees' goals clearly align with the company's, set an example of personal dedication, and encourage enthusiasm. However, without people somehow coming together, the team, as a whole, will produce work like a collection of individuals rather than achieving a greater synergy.

Unification comes from trust and spontaneous communication within the team. As managers we cannot make the team members trust one another but we can and should assist with the formation of a team communication network. Formally we encourage communications by establishing clear roles and responsibilities. Informally we encourage communications by constantly "roping" people into conversations. This practice, usually involving grabbing the closest team member to the discussion, creates lines of communication both by practice and by example.

Analyzing my failure

I can use the above analytical tool to dissect where I went wrong with my first team.

  1. Enthusiasm: I failed to build enthusiasm from a strong base. Although I could, and did, use tricks to create momentary enthusiastic bursts, the team could not sustain it.
  2. Dedication: The team's loyalty to me made them highly dedicated to their goal. They brought the project in on time and under budget. To this day, I remain humbled by their willingness to walk into the fire for me. However, that they had to, speaks poorly of my planning skills.
  3. Common goals: Here lies the crux of the problem. My goal, and the project goal, was to execute a deployment. The team wanted me to succeed and therefore by default wanted the project to succeed. Only extremely good fortune prevented this from becoming a complete disaster.
  4. Unification: My inexperience blinded me to the communications side of unification. I thought if we all worked together, on schedule, we were a team. Fortunately the team possessed an established hierarchy and informal communications network long before I arrived on the scene. I was aware enough to codify that hierarchy into the formal project roles, avoiding dissonance between the formal and informal roles people played.

Using the analysis

Now, when my clients come to me with a morale problem associated with a team, I have a way to define what we have to deal with. Does the team lack enthusiasm for its work? Do they not have sufficient dedication to carry them through the rough times? Is there a goal misalignment somewhere in the system? Or does the team suffer from a lack of unification? This analysis allows me to step beyond the obvious enthusiasm element inherent in morale. In turn, this helps me to build a solid foundation for any team's continued success.

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