Warning: If you are ever approached by someone proclaiming to be an expert at maintaining a positive and consistent level of company morale, I would urge you to run away from them.
My experience with morale (both hands-on work and consulting observations) is easy to describe; morale goes up and morale goes down, but it is far from the laws of Newton. Do not strain yourself looking for the laws of action and reaction since morale has little regard for classic mechanical law. Morale movement can be both unexpected and haphazard. There can be a sudden (but always welcome) rise, which you’ll be at a happy loss to explain, and then, from a place called Nowhere, morale can take a frustrating, disturbing nose-dive that offers up no valid reason or catalyst for the plunge. Of course, the morale of your staff will also rise and fall as a reaction to your behavior, your words and the culture you build.
WHAT IS MORALE?
Since morale is so intangible, let’s nail down the meaning of it so that we’re sure to have the same starting point. First, morale has nothing to do with “morality.” Morale is one of your company’s vital signs — it is a very unscientific and yet totally critical measurement of group attitude and engagement. The concept of morale has military roots; in that respect, it is a gauge of a unit’s cohesion or its fighting spirit. It compares well to taking the temperature of every single employee (including owners and managers) at the exact same time. Like body temperature, you’re looking for a reading within a certain range that will indicate your company’s organizational health.
Morale is also known as esprit de corps. The renowned author and psychiatrist Alexander Leighton once elegantly described morale as “the capacity of a group of people to pull together persistently and consistently in pursuit of a common purpose.” Do all of your people know and fully understand exactly what your company’s common purpose is? Do you believe your entire staff would pass a surprise quiz on that topic? If not, some extra schooling in your company’s role in the marketplace will help quite a bit. Remember, morale can only be genuine, and therefore powerful, when the employee group believes in the values that your company represents and fights for. Anything less and the cracks will begin to show.
Morale is vital and maddening. It vexes those who care a great deal about it. The occasional lawlessness of morale exists regardless of a company’s size, budget or variety of really swell vending machines. Google, the lord of all search engines, has its own version of really swell vending machines. They use unmatchable employee perks to boost morale, encourage interaction, increase productivity and, most importantly, retain the talented stars they have on staff. Googlers have access to gourmet versions of breakfast, lunch and dinner — all at no charge to the workers. (It has been estimated that Google’s annual food budget approaches $75 million.) To keep its staff focused on business issues and not on mundane life responsibilities, Google also offers on-site hair stylists, dry-cleaning, laundry, ultra-modern gym facilities with personal trainers, swimming pools, video game rooms, an on-site medical staff with massage therapists and a play-based day care facility for the little Googlet offspring of its workers. Why head home when everything you need is at work?
Morale is both an asset and a resource. Seen correctly, it can be a tremendous competitive advantage for those companies who learn to harness its power. Whom would you rather face off against in your local market . . . a company that never experiences supply outages or a company with a loyal and tightly knit group of motivated employees committed to their daily service mission? I know my answer. If you ever find yourself needing a push to spend more time acting as your firm’s Morale Officer, consider this: Dissatisfied employees cannot create satisfied customers, and it’s the rare business that can build a secure future based on unhappy customers.
Morale isn’t all about money. There are many other elements that create the esprit de corps you need. Check yourself out before you think about reaching into your pocket:
Do you think of and/or treat your employees as a cost or as an asset? You simply cannot convince anyone to worry about your company and its mission unless you fully embrace your people’s role as irreplaceable assets of the organization. Try thinking of the situation in reverse, if that helps. Would you lose sleep over an important employee benefit if your people thought of you as “some unpleasant thing that just barks commands” in order to get their paycheck? Or, would you care more if your people considered you a valuable benefactor that provided them with a secure living?
Do you regularly “make their day” by taking them aside for little chats, check-ins and cheery praising (when deserved)? Everyone craves feedback. Do you provide it?