Employee Morale

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If you read Inc.com's "10-Tips for Boosting Employee Morale", among them you will find what appear to be quite commonsensical suggestions regarding how to build and sustain morale:

* Smile more
* Encourage work breaks
* Make the workplace comfortable
* Keep the conversation going (i.e., make communication "a two-way street")
* Recognize special events in the lives of your employees.

Now, re-read this list and try to sell it to a U.S. Marine drill sergeant, who, like all drill sergeants, has building morale as a top priority.

The problem with the given list is not only that it is sector-specific, but also that it is mainstream civilian-culture intuitive, with a strong reliance on feel-good "soft" ways to achieve solid goals. What the contrast with a Marine drill sergeant's perspective reveals is that the commitment to building morale is more a commitment to very specific results, not to specific means (which may have to vary as the organizational mission and command and control structures vary).

In any and every instance of morale-focused efforts, it is vital to first identify the outcomes desired, to determine the best means relative to not only the morale outcomes but also to the organizational mission and structure, and to resist the temptation to misapply one organizational morale-building model to another, e.g., building daycare centers to building SEAL teams.

Employee morale, like any kind of morale (and not to be confused with "morals"), has distinct components, associated supports and identifiable ways in which it can be undermined. But, before settling for a "feel good" definition and setting about to build morale, it is important to understand what those distinct components are and how or whether they can be created, fortified and integrated.

What are the elements of (high) morale?

* Optimism
* Enthusiasm
* Confidence
* Perseverance
* Courage
* Discipline

With these identified, it becomes possible to intelligently address the question of how to foster and protect each of these within an organization. It also becomes much more apparent that a given way of promoting one of these may actually diminish another. For example, publicly disciplining a misbehaving employee may, in the short run, impact overall workplace enthusiasm (even though that may recover in the long run).

Building employee confidence may (again, in at least the short run) erode optimism, e.g., by taking employees into the confidence of management and entrusting them with information and authority regarding management of some looming corporate crisis. In this instance, employees' confidence in themselves as trustworthy, capable, etc., increases, but at the expense of optimism about the company's short-term prospects.

To aim to boost or sustain morale is one task; actually measuring or otherwise gauging how successful the effort and how successful it has been is quite another. The latter-most task will be quite impossible without some clear concept of "morale", some solid ideas about how to create and sustain it, and some ideas about what will count as valid and reliable measures of morale.

It is also worth asking how and whether employee morale differs from other kinds of morale, e.g., within volunteer groups or non-civilian enterprises, such as the military. Some may argue that the way to build morale in the military is very different from the self-esteem building-efforts sometimes thought to be vital to employee morale. In particular, the "tough-love" harsh discipline associated with building a platoon seems to be at odds with the more supportive techniques of corporate team building-yet both types of organizations and teams value high morale.
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