Command Issue June 2019

5 Ways to Nourish a Positive Spirit in Your Organization

By Mark Field

Walking law enforcement hallways, I find that morale remains one of the most discussed law enforcement topics. Morale is no respecter of title, salary, or hierarchy. It touches every level of any organization. Fortune 500 executives are not immune from dissatisfaction and complaining, which also impacts one’s favorite grocery cashier. The more demanding the job and less control employees exercise over what they do, the more likely they will suffer.

This article talks about ways that managers unwittingly weaken morale and offers five suggestions for greatly improving the spirit within an organization.

Most definitions of morale conclude: Psychological state of a person as expressed in self-confidence, enthusiasm, and/or loyalty to a cause or organization flowing from people’s conviction about the righteousness or worth of their actions and the hopes of high rewards (material or otherwise) in the future.

A 2007 study found that people whose work meets both criteria are more likely to experience exhaustion, poor sleep, anxiety, and depression. On a granular level, lack of cooperation, decreased work performance, employee retention, increased absenteeism, reduced personal initiative, overall poor attitudes – might signal poor morale.

An estimated 22 million employees are “actively disengaged” in their current positions, resulting in $350 billion per year in lost productivity and absenteeism. Another 53% of workers fall into the “not engaged” category. Generally, they are satisfied but “not cognitively and emotionally connected to their work and workplace,” i.e. they usually show up for work, do the minimum required, but will quickly head for the door for a slightly better offer.

Disregarded, history repeated, foretells a probable no-confidence vote and ultimately a career ender. It is illogical to rationalize that the majority of people are disillusioned and dissatisfied. And, adopting a program/ project approach is rarely sustainable without proper care and nurturing.

Some may blame turnover problems on a litany of reasons while ignoring the real crux of the matter: people don’t leave jobs; they leave leaders.

Vision and commitment – coupled with a fresh perspective and focused
leadership to provide employees additional autonomy and lessen work demands – may avoid unnecessary suffering for the entire organization.

How can leaders unwittingly deplete morale?

  • #1 – Withholding Praise

A symbolic pat on the back can easily be dismissed, particularly with intrinsically motivated top performers.
Most humans relish accolades, none more than the self-motivated and self-disciplined.
Communicating with employees is fundamental to determine what motivates them to feel good, e.g., a free lunch, public recognition, written notes or commendations, promotions, additional responsibility. It is best to (immediately) reward them accordingly.
People should not be praised simply for arriving at work on time or working a full workday – these are the price of entry. Then again, failing to praise dedicated employees tends to erode their job commitment.

  • #2 – Overworking People

Nothing more stresses and burns out good employees than overworking them. Leaders naturally gravitate to overperformers who they know willing take on more work and responsibilities without complaint – and get the task done, correctly
the first time, and on time.
Overloading top performers has unintended consequences, leaving them feeling punished for great performance. It is also counterproductive. Research confirms productivity per hour declines sharply once workweeks exceed 50 hours. After 55 hours, work becomes ineffective.
Talented employees willingly take larger workloads but will not stay if their job suffocates them. Job enlargement, raises, promotions, and title-changes are acceptable ways to increase workload. Increasing workloads simply because people are talented – without commensurate changes – may cause them to seek employment elsewhere that provides what they desire and deserve.

  • #3 – Restraining People

Talented employees are passionate. Intermittent or long-range opportunities allow pursuit of passions, improves productivity and job
satisfaction – unlike some leaders who choose to force people to work within a confined, small box.
Unfounded fears grip some leaders: feeling personally threatened and losing control, and they foresee productivity decline. Studies have shown how people permitted to pursue their work passions experience a euphoric state of mind that is five times more productive than the norm.
Leadership expert Ken Blanchard said it best, “Your job as a leader is to educate your people, to help them develop to the point where they can take responsibility for their work and to give them opportunities to perform.”

  • #4 – Playing the Blame Game

Finger pointing and blame fixing are pointless and waste valuable time and energy – never to be recovered. Complaining serves no productive purpose and changes nothing. Failing to challenge people in the workplace about their endless diatribes, if, left unchecked, multiplies and becomes toxic.
Morale is constituted by the sum total of individual inputs. Humans self-regulate attitudes – not the organization.
Leaders too proud to admit mistakes or who publicly humiliate others create cultures riddled with fear and anxiety.
Collaboration on solutions goes far greater in alleviating issues plaguing organizations.

Putting It All Together

  • Recognize Achievements. Morale slumps as leaders overlook hard work. Practice vigilance and look for people doing something right. Without delay, recognize performance that exceeds a work goal – personally and publicly. Public acknowledgement of success creates an environment where individuals feel their work is truly worthwhile and valued.
  • Support Professional Development. Most employees don’t want to relive every day as the day before. Investing in employees (job rotation, specialized assignment, training, education, etc.) conveys powerful messages about belief in employee potential. Building skillsets pre-positions people for future promotional opportunities. And, it inspires employees to work harder, spurred on by evidence that hard work will eventually be rewarded.
  • Inspire Positivity. Not everyone shows up daily for roll call with a smile on their face. Complaining is a self-fulfilling prophecy and, if left unchecked, breeds a toxic, negative environment. Who would risk initiative fearing criticism? A genuine, positive spirit is contagious, particularly on tough days, and, inspires people to feel, and behave, the same.
  • Promote Competition. Healthy competition on an even playing field moves the ball forward. A focus on creative competition, rather than differences that divide, can transform monotonous tasks, enhance performance, and even morale.
  • Differentiate Between Spirit and Morale. Spirit is the undying essence of a human, i.e., the soul. Spirit involves learning something new and having different experiences that help give us more energy and raise our spirit/spirits. Morale is the capacity of people to maintain belief in an institution or a goal, or even in oneself and others. Morale is an attitude. And bad attitudes can spread quickly, especially if there is a legitimate cause for them. 

Using “spirit” instead of “morale” is a subtle change that invokes a positive rather than negative connotation.
Leadership has a beginning but has no end.

When blessed with talented employees, a leader has a high calling to enlarge skillsets and advance careers. Talented employees desperately desire feedback – more so than the less talented.

Keep it coming. Otherwise, boredom and complacency are predictable.