Morale as a Reflection on Leadership

Jan. 1, 2020
Several years ago, a fairly large company that I was working was struggling with ownership and significant financial issues. During that time, the president of the company asked me to explain concerns with morale I had expressed
By Brian Canning, Contributing Editor

Morale as a Reflection 
on Leadership
Several years ago, a fairly large company that I was working was struggling with ownership and significant financial issues. During that time, the president of the company asked me to explain concerns with morale I had expressed in a weekly staffing and operations report during a meeting with management.  My talk during the meeting went on for several minutes because I truly believed these issues were having an effect on my region and the employees for whom I was responsible. In mid-sentence, halfway into my explanation, the company's chief executive - my ultimate boss - impatiently cut me off and asked, half sarcastically, "Has anyone quit yet?"  I would love to tell you that he was kidding - or that he misunderstood what I was trying to say or the seriousness of what I had observed. But ultimately, he asked the exact question he wanted to ask. As far as he was concerned, unless we were suffering a mass exodus, morale was not an issue and we needed to move on.  Thinking that perhaps I had somehow miscommunicated my thoughts, or maybe I was not quite believing what I had heard, I tried to explain again to restate the urgency of what I was observing. I looked around the table at the other regional managers and the general manager for support, but they were much quicker at reading the situation - or maybe just smarter . They all seemed to have a sudden interest in the pattern on the carpet underneath the table. No help or support there.  That meeting stands out to me as a watershed moment. Although the company did not survive those ownership and financial issues, I remain astounded to this day by the narrow-minded stupidity. Morale matters. Resisting the temptation to pull some moment from history where an outnumbered group, armed only with slingshots and high morale, were able to win the battle, save the day and overthrow the tyrant king, I would simply note that the search for examples of where morale has had a decisive factor in how something turned out are numerous beyond counting. In more practical terms, I would note that teams that have high morale are always more productive, always have lower rates of illness (and death), and always have lower turnover.  It would seem that morale is important, and it would seem that high morale is something worth striving for. It's a shame you can't buy it, grow it or steal it from the successful shop down the street.  A very strange concept in and among all of this issue of morale is limits. Most people respond very well to knowing their limits (both physical and behavioral), knowing the rules and knowing what is expected. It seems that if we construct a job for our employees with all the limits, rules and penalties, we seem to go a long way toward assuring good morale.  Those crazy human beings that make up our staffs apparently like knowing what to expect from us and the job; what is expected of them; and strangest of all, they like to know how they are doing against all these expectations. In other words they want structure, and they want reassurance. How unreasonable is that? What is morale?  I went to my roots on this and pulled out a copy of FM 22-100 on military leadership, but I found this manual had changed a lot since I graduated from the U.S. Noncommissioned Officer Academy in Ansbach, Germany, back in 1977. I couldn't find a great definition. In part it described morale as "a measure of how people feel about themselves, their team and their leaders." I guess I agree with that statement, but I think high morale also needs to address the willingness to suffer hardship and overcome adversity or any obstacle.  Morale either allows us to persevere or causes us to quit, and it does not only refer to a soldier on the battlefield. Morale is universal: It can impact brokers on Wall Street, nurses, teachers, fast-food workers or that technician in the third bay. It affects women just as it affects men, and the old as well as the young. It does not care what language you speak. Morale is a purely human characteristic or condition.  The leadership of any organization is responsible for morale: Whoever is in the corner office; whoever is making the decisions; whoever is assigning work and determining raises; and whoever is in charge.  Morale is a primary leadership function. If you are a great leader, I would be confident in saying your people have great morale. If you are challenged by leadership or are a lousy leader, I am very confident in saying your people suffer low morale.  Morale is a direct reflection of leadership. It allows us to work beyond our endurance, to put up with the harshest of working conditions and even have us motivated and asking for more in the midst of all this. On the other side, no amount of beautiful facilities, great equipment and the latest and greatest electronic gizmos can, by themselves, overcome bad morale.  It all comes down to leadership and your ability to connect, communicate and motivate those human beings that make up your staff. It all comes down to you. We welcome your comments and topic suggestions.
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