How To Kill Morale

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Recognize The Value Of Team Morale

David Bock Reston, Virginia, USA

Morale is one of those things you know you need, but it is hard to grow and measure. A team with high morale will occasionally put in extra effort cheerfully, but a team with low morale will not. High morale isn’t just about a better workplace, it is about a more productive team.

A few years ago I worked with a team that exhibited high morale. At times, the office felt more like a community of friends than a workplace. Productivity was high. We would occasionally have crises that required a little extra “push”, and team members would volunteer for that extra effort.

I few years later, I saw that same team at an ice cream social at the office, and they didn’t appear happy. They weren’t socializing, and their body language seemed cold. When I approached them, they were complaining that there were only “chocolate Jimmies, not colored sprinkles” as a topping for the ice cream. Think about that transition; same team, same project, much different morale. They went from cheerfully working overtime, when needed, to complaining about free ice cream.

How did this happen? The team had a new manager who made some bad decisions. His errors led the team down a false path and created more work for them. Senior management blamed the entire team. And when the manager took no responsibility, the team lost confidence. The project became “more work and less fun”, and morale suffered.

As the manager tried to improve the situation, he made things worse. “When the team had high morale, they would occasionally go out to movies together,” he remembered. So he instituted a “movie night”. The team had no interest in socializing and attendance was low. The manager began marking on performance reviews that people weren’t “participating with the team”. That lowered morale even more.

In this situation, the manager had the cause and effect backwards. People don’t have high team morale because they socialize, they are more willing to socialize because they have high morale.

As a consultant, I have tried to think about ways to measure morale. I have joked about metrics like “the ratio of cars in the parking lot at 5:05 pm and 4:55 pm”, and the “number of visible Dilbert cartoons per square foot of office space”. But I have realized morale isn’t something to be measured, morale IS the measurement. We are measuring the team’s attitude. Morale is the measure of the team’s confidence in their leader, confidence in their teammates, and faith in the team’s ability to get things done.

It is your job as the software project manager to create a workplace with high morale. If the team respects you as their leader, and if they feel they can talk to you and influence the outcome of events, morale will improve.

High morale results in greater satisfaction among your employees, lower turnover, and higher productivity. On top of all that, its just nicer to be around happy people. Don’t you agree?

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