Who holds responsibility for morale: Common goals and unification

With morale at an all-time low in IT, which group—managers, team members, or both—plays the biggest role in improving conditions?

As I mentioned in a previous article, a client managed to push me into a corner so I would talk about morale, time investment, and the theory that links the two. After giving him an earful about how enthusiasm and dedication impact morale, I had built up a pretty good head of steam. Before he could get a word in edgewise, I started ranting about those bugbears of modern management: common goals and unification.

What are common goals, and how do we form them?

One of the two great tricks of modern management or leadership revolves around understanding the connections between the myriad motivations driving human action and the relatively simple strategic and tactical goals guiding businesses. Using these connections, we then show employees how they can fulfill their needs (e.g., becoming a local leader, caring for their family) by acting in the role and performing the tasks we need them to accomplish.

The other great trick involves constructing a team goal and then linking that goal to the aforementioned personal motivations. Our most common linking tool is the dreaded company and team bonuses, monetary rewards tied to activities outside of the individual team member's scope of action. We also use sundry teaming methods to generate enthusiasm about the team goal.

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:

When we look at this in terms of time investment, though, it all seems rather foolish. Each individual has time to invest in his own goals in accordance with his motivations. Who exactly has time to invest in the team's goal? Who can demonstrate to everyone on the team the importance of the goal through actions rather than motivational speeches?

Responsibility for the common goal lands squarely on the shoulders of the group leader, who may or may not be the team's manager. Team leaders are the ones who must visibly, immediately, and relevantly invest time into the common goal. More importantly, team leaders cannot just invest their own time. They must convince—through power, authority, or influence—others to invest time with them toward the goal they select. The leaders don't necessarily have to work toward the specific goal, but they do have to spend time with the team performing tasks related to it.

Many erstwhile leaders become embarrassed when they do work in front of the team that's not immediately related to accomplishing the goal. However, any work obviously motivated by the goal can show a leader's personal time investment.

As an example, take the case of one of the best IT project managers I've ever met. He knows nothing at all about IT. However, he consciously decided to build investment toward the project goals by making communications and logistics phone calls from the desk of the person most directly affected by the call. From that point, when that team member needs something, he picks up the phone and makes the order or calls the person he needs to talk to. This time investment meets the above three criteria (visible, immediate, and relevant). In using this and a handful of other tricks, he has taken a broken project team filled with good people and welded them together into a world-class operation in a space of weeks.

Is unification a myth?

In a perfect world where the employees take responsibility for enthusiasm and dedication, and the manager takes up the task of investing in the common goal, one could hope that unification would logically follow. After all, we've hit all the right buttons.

Unfortunately, just like everything else, unification has more than one meaning and a wide variety of practical applications. In business leadership, though, we mostly concern ourselves with just a few of these: coordination of efforts, social stability, and work synergy.

It's a nice idea that an enthusiastic and dedicated team will somehow spontaneously coordinate with one another and with the outside world. But we, as leaders, must "pave the road" for the team. It remains our responsibility to make sure other teams provide the appropriate resources and fulfill their obligations to our team.

Management skills cannot, however, create the social stability aspect of unification. We want our team members to feel comfortable communicating within the team on a professional level. This does not mean the teammates regard one another as best friends. It does mean that the social norms and communications methods established through the leader's interactions enable frank and open information exchange about task-related activities. Interpersonally, they can bicker like schoolchildren in a playground as long as their professional communication remains intact.

Finally, we consider a team unified when its work demonstrates a synergy creating greater results than the sum of what each team member could accomplish alone. Romantic descriptions aside, this synergy is, unfortunately, hard to measure. Even the best team wavers in and out of it uncertainly—one moment working in synergy with one another and then falling back into a group of individuals.

When I look for synergy within a team, I pay attention not to the output but to how it came about. When team members unrelated to a specific task come in on their off-hours, of their own free will, to trace down obscure problems and linkages between systems, I know we've achieved something. When each team member jealously hoards his or her knowledge and responsibilities, I know we still need more work.

Other people look for other things. Many think synergy should remain intact over a long period of time, or that it exists only if the team's absolute output reaches X% over the sum total of the member's average output. Both of these measures seem somewhat naive to me. They fail to account for the constant ebb and flow of circumstance and emotion leading to the moments of unification.

Final thoughts on time investment and responsibility

Silence descended after I finally ran out of steam. After considering his beer for a few minutes, my friend looked over at me. "So what's the bottom line?" he asked.

"Bottom line? Each person holds responsibility for their emotional state, but a leader can help a team build social connections. Leaders must visibly give time to their goals if they want their team to respond. Leadership is necessary but not enough. If you want to unify your team, you have to manage the outside connections and measure work results so the team can focus on the goal."

"And team-building exercises?" he followed.

"Worth a lot less than a kind word and a good beer. Speaking of which, you owe me another."

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