"Bad Morale"—The Stuff of Nightmares
Updated: Feb 15
Whenever leaders hear the phrase “Bad Morale,” most would, at least privately, admit to experiencing an intense and deeply visceral fear as their highly personal reaction to the charge settles into their gut. Bad Morale signals a fault, a very serious one.
These same leaders, who otherwise act with high confidence in leading large organizations, suddenly begin to fumble apologetically, expressing regrets about the situation, promising to take immediate action and to fix the problem.
Most of them take action to fix the problem; only a few succeed. If you ask them to explain the nature of the problem, the majority of them cannot. Hence, the high rate of failure is no surprise. If you do not understand why something is broken, you face impossibly high odds in successfully repairing it.
Morale comes from the Old French moral meaning “confidence” (especially in a military context). In contemporary speech, we define that “confidence” in more detail and understand morale to be “The capacity of people to maintain belief in an institution, a goal, or oneself and others.”
Morale can be either Good, wherein the constituents exhibit a high capacity to maintain confidence in their organization, their goals, teammates, etc. or morale can be Bad where the constituents experience low confidence, pessimism and doubt.
For an organization to build and enjoy “Good Morale,” its leaders need to ensure the employees possess morals, or clearly defined standards, that teach what good or acceptable behavior is versus bad or unacceptable behavior. When this differentiation is clear and well established, people will know the right direction to take when facing challenges; in other words, they will have confidence in their organization, department, coworkers, etc. and they will maintain a strong belief in the value of their performance and the mission of the organization.
Good Morale then is a reflection of competent leadership while Bad Morale is a clear indictment of the leadership. It is precisely this fault that causes the leadership’s gut wrenching.
Bad Morale—The Root Cause
The crux of Bad Morale is really the result of a poorly drafted and/or communicated set of Core Values and Mission that define the organization. People cannot believe in, and become disillusioned by, an organization that fails to clearly identify their Mission and Core Values. An organization that does not outwardly, and clearly, eschew cheats, liars, law breakers, slackers, etc. has no real moral compass and indeed, without a Mission, no direction to proceed in even if they had a compass!
Every incidence of Bad Morale is an indictment of leadership. At the departmental level, when bad morale has taken root, the department leader needs to understand that his people are suffering. And consequently, so is the company.
When it is the entire organization that is suffering bad morale, it is a crisis level problem that demands immediate attention and remediation. Morale, good or bad, is not built easily nor quickly. When the affliction is company-wide, the fix often will require the replacement of senior executives and/or the CEO unless they can be made to see the gravity of the situation.
Bad Morale in any organization, at any level, is the result of poor leadership skills and/or communication skills, which leave the employees detached from their jobs, their organization and their leaders. It is a prime responsibility of the CEO and his staff to ensure that the entire organization, and each department within it, is given the proper leadership.
Bad Morale results when an organization fails to understand that the most important asset it has is its human resource. Morale is destroyed as a result of the way people are treated and how they are valued—their confidence is destroyed when they no longer have a strong belief in their team, their department, or their company and they don’t believe their leader understands what they need, and most definitely they don’t believe she cares how they feel.
Good Morale—The Stuff Heroes are Made From
Is Good Morale really that important for an organization? Good morale, by itself, will not turn a company around. It cannot fix a balance sheet, buy more productive equipment, eliminate a competitor or save an obsolete industry. But what it can do is rather remarkable and utterly unique. Good morale can knit a group of ordinary people into a super-charged team of individuals where each person greatly exceeds their normal performance potential because they are so motivated by their leaders, their team members and their belief in their Mission and in themselves. Good morale can help propel an organization from merely good to really great.
It has been said that morale is a very important quality in soldiers. With good morale they'll charge into a hail of bullets; without it, they won't even cross a street.
Should you have any doubt of the immense power of morale, consider Operation Overlord, aka D-Day (Jun 6-1944), where more than 4,000 Allied soldiers perished in a single afternoon as they fought impossible odds to reclaim the beaches of Normandy from the entrenched German army. The men fought on valiantly and with purpose even as their buddies and comrades were brought down by bullets and mortars all around them. These men had a Mission to accomplish and shared the same Core Values. This is the stuff of heroes!
Prescription for Good Morale
1. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. People judge the messenger first and then the message. When a leader is seen as someone who sincerely cares about the people and the company, they will more easily accept and respond to his message.
How do you show people that you care? Caring is not something you hold in your back pocket and pull out to distribute in time of crisis, or tragedy. Caring is what you must do non-stop—it is a core part of a leader’s daily job. The level of care does not change based on the situation. The leader must be consistently predictable in demonstrating that he cares for the Mission, the Values and the people he is responsible to lead.
You cannot care about your people in some instances and disregard them in others. Caring is an all or nothing proposition. It is similar to being in love, either you are or you are not.
You cannot wait until you are in a foxhole to let people know that you care. You do it daily. In a crisis situation when everyone operates on instinct, people should be able to predict how their leader will behave and know exactly what he is going to do. The way you act and treat people, it should not change from day to day.
2. Leaders must be able to communicate clearly, with honesty and sincerity. As a leader, you must learn to have real conversations with the people you lead or you become a talking head merely preaching to them. Real conversation benefits both parties. For the leader, it is an opportunity to be honest and sincere in what you say. For the people, it is an opportunity to be heard and to be understood. It must, of course, be an environment where they can ask questions without fear of repercussions.
The most important factor in interpersonal conversation is listening. If you are not listening, the people will hear the same message from you every time you talk to them—the message that is important to you, not what is important to and resonates with them. Open and honest real life conversation is how you learn about your people, their work and life struggles, aspirations and dreams. Does your message tell a genuine story, one that intrigues them, relates to them? Is it a story about how the company can do better and, in turn, how it creates opportunities for richer lives and greater career aspirations?
3. Real leadership is in the details. Most leaders have no idea just how much and how often they are scrutinized by the people they serve. The leader’s character is measured not only at work, but also outside of the workplace whenever he is visible. The way he interacts with people, the way he conducts himself, the way he observes the laws, etc. etc. all become part of her report card. The best way to show leadership is by example in all that you do, on and off the job.
4. To be a leader, you have to be able to think and see beyond today. There are certain innate qualities, such as an elevated IQ and perhaps an extrovert personality, that are required to be an effective leader. But there are others that result only from learned behavior.
You have to be your own person, with independent judgment and the maturity to take ownership of your decisions and their consequences. You cannot lead on borrowed judgment from your boss or others.
The greatest contribution a leader makes to any organization is his ability to shape the future of the company. If you are not a deep and broad thinker, you cannot be an effective leader. The ability to think outside the box can be easily augmented when the leader engages others in meaningful conversation, striving to listen to and understand the viewpoints and rationales of others.
When the Mission reflects the ability of the leader to project a viable, worthwhile goal for all employees to pursue, then you no longer have a man with a mission, but a battalion of soldiers ready to conquer the impossible.
“A leader's job is to look into the future and see the organization, not as it is, but as it should be.”
– Jack Welch