Who holds the responsibility for morale?

Managers and team members both share the blame and the praise, or do they?

In my "What is morale anyway" article, I recounted my theory on morale. In it, I outlined the idea that adult morale extends beyond simple enthusiastic work and into complicated psychological issues, such as dedication and a feeling of unification because of (rather than despite) problems.

One of my clients forced me into a conversation on the theory. After I started repeating myself, he bought me another beer. "So," he said, "this sounds like a decent idea. But you only mentioned goal alignment as a usable tool. Is morale all my fault?"

I looked him as squarely in the eye as I could manage. "No. It's more complicated than that."

"Why did I know you were going to say that?" He ordered up another round, and we started chatting.

A failure of thought

We first have to accept that morale is a process, not a set of unconnected actions. No single action or set of actions can create team morale. You cannot send your team to a motivational speaker or run though a bunch of teaming exercises to create great team spirit. Worse, at least from a management point of view, actions and games capable of helping one particular team could end up crushing another's morale.

In reality, morale's elements build and disperse over a period of time due to the dynamic application of social and work pressures. If the quick fixes favored by modern speakers simply cannot work, what does?

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:

The curse, the cure, and the source of responsibility: time

Logically we should look to mechanisms involving incremental changes for possible solutions. The hundreds of techniques involving incremental change all share one common element: a constant investment of hours over a long period of time.

Time is, of course, one of the most limited commodities in modern business. For all of our talk of productivity gains, people are working harder, longer, and in a less-personal fashion than ever before. Worse, we all know that the moment we express interest in something or spend some time on it, that thing becomes our responsibility in the business.

In terms of morale, therefore, each team member assumes responsibility for his interactions with the team, his role within it, and the social network surrounding that role. We, as managers, accept responsibility for establishing common goals and monitoring/mentoring the team unification process.

In this article, we'll discuss the first two elements—enthusiasm and dedication. We'll touch on the two remaining elements—common goals and unification—in an upcoming article.

Responsibility for enthusiasm

It is easy to say, "Enthusiasm comes from working toward a personal goal." However, this self-evident statement only encompasses a small portion of the motivational arsenal and says nothing about whom should wield it.

The creation of job enthusiasm comes from three basic sources: interactions with coworkers, the relationship between personal achievement and job goal achievement, and enjoyment of the type of work involved.

As managers, we can affect all three elements indirectly, but the individual team member obviously invests more time in them. If he does not, then he probably needs mentoring in basic personal skills. Our indirect influence can assist our team members toward a positive dynamic, but they have to invest the time to both create and sustain the system.

In the first and third elements—interactions with coworkers and enjoyment of work—we can mentor employees or engage in guided discussions, but cannot effect massive change on the skills they bring to the table already. Many of them learned their social and personal coping skills in their early childhoods; we cannot expect to make radical changes to those skills.

The second element—the relationship between personal achievement and job goal achievement—is our most common management standby because it feels like we can do something with it. However, many of us spend only a few hours on goal alignment every year. How often do your personal goals remain the same for more than a quarter? How much does what you want from life change in the space of a week?

If we want to use personal goals to create enthusiasm, we have to invest a bit of our own time in communicating with the employee and ensuring that he still sees the alignment and that the alignment remains true. Fifteen minutes a week per employee makes a world of difference.

Responsibility for dedication

Dedication, the state of being set onto a course of action, is an elusive personality trait the military tries to build into soldiers by breaking them down psychologically and then rebuilding them using rigidly defined rules. In business, we lack the ability (although not necessarily the inclination) to inflict such brutal damage and to heal the resulting wound.

Instead, we have to rely on whatever the employee brings to the table in terms of personal focus and psychological commitment to work. In some people, we hit the employment jackpot: employees who just love to work 80 hours a week under impossible conditions. Most of the time, our employees display a much healthier attitude: They like what work brings them and will do what they have to do, but they also have outside priorities.

As with enthusiasm, the individual team member has more time to invest in the elements creating dedication. He is the only one who can, in a practical sense, enmesh himself into the company's social framework. As he attaches weight to the social (rather than business) roles of the people around him, he begins to want to help his peers for personal reasons. These reasons vary from employee to employee. Some want to maintain their social status, others like to help friends, and many like to show off a bit.

As managers, we can make efforts to create a friendly environment and a strong sense of social commitment. We can use our charisma (if we have it) to become the social leader so that our goals become the social group goals. We also can invest time in our employees' relationships with one another, so that they have friendship bonds to drive them forward when the enthusiasm finally runs out.

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