"You can't buy your employee's enthusiasm, loyalty, hearts, minds, or souls. You must earn these."

    Morale (or the esprit-de-corps principle) is one of the oldest ideas in administrative science, going back to the management practices of ancient civilizations, like the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Venetians. Yet, "morale" is a difficult word to define. Let's take a look at the definitional/theoretical problem.


    It's easier to describe it as a "state of mind, a mood, a mental condition" (Bennet & Hess 1998), when these things are all positive and upbeat. It's the idea that work is not really work, it's enjoyable, a source of pride. But, this is a perhaps too mentalistic of a definition. A more theoretical definition would be "positive affective orientation towards membership" (Price 1972), which is the equivalent of the sociological concept of "group cohesion". In this sense, morale is the behavior of employees wanting to belong to the organization and who are being happy with their organization. But, there are many other reasons for this kind of behaving in this behavioral definition.

    It's easier to define morale by what it is NOT. It's not the same as effort, efficiency, or productivity. In fact, there is often a dialectic between morale and productivity. The two are not necessarily causally related (March & Simon 1958; Perrow 1986), although commonsense would seem to indicate that as one goes up, the other goes up. For example, we often hear that low morale in a police agency is causing a low level of productivity, but that is simply not true (Stojkovic, Kalinich & Klofas 1998). What is true is that there are basic organizational problems creating both low productivity and low morale. Two basic problems that have this effect are: (1) employee lack of certainty about their jobs; and (2) failure of employees to buy into the mission statement and goals; but there are many possible problem factors other than these two.

    It's NOT a motivational problem. Motivation is just the willingness of employees to work, and you've bought that from them. You can't increase morale by training your supervisors to be better motivators, not matter what the consultants tell you. Parsons (1951), the great functionalist thinker, was one of the first to point out that morale is a collective, systemic phenomenon. It must arise sui generis (seemingly out of nothing). You can't motivate morale, and you probably shouldn't measure it by employee turnover, although this is a common trap.

    It's NOT the same as job satisfaction, but morale is the collective counterpart of job satisfaction. Individual needs and preferences determine job satisfaction. You can't simply add up or aggregate all the individual job satisfaction scores of each employee and call that average figure "morale". You need to eliminate or control for individual differences. Yet, as we shall see, morale is often inferred from job satisfaction surveys, but you need to make the important distinction between individual and organizational morale. The results of your survey may lead you to believe that organizational morale is high, when in fact, it's only individual morale that's high.


There are essentially three ways to measure morale:

(1) the Job Satisfaction Survey (averaging up individual responses from strongly disagree to strongly agree). Over the years, there have been a bewildering variety of job satisfaction surveys created, but most analysis of such items have revealed the following core dimensions or salient factors:

Surveys are used in two ways: (a) as a means of appeasement, where management is trying to make it look like they care about employee morale; and (b) as a way to follow through with some action, and the most important actions that can be taken are salary equity studies, benefits recalculation, and changing for innovation.

(2) the Great American Buy-In (getting the employees to buy into the mission statement). I'm not sure who invented the phrase "buy-in" (maybe Dilbert), but it seems to be going on everywhere these days in organizations. You already know that mission statements should contain no more than 5 values (words like "Trustworthy", "Honesty", "Value", "Quality", etc.), and that mission statements serve as a useful tool in deflecting outside criticism, cultivating constituencies, building coalitions, etc. The basic idea of a buy-in is that you allow some work time for the employees to personally think about, reflect upon, get together with others if they want to, and write down all the various ways they "implement" the values in the mission statement in their daily work lives. The danger of this approach is that it seems to force morale to happen, but if done in such a way that there are no associated task demands, I guess it could work, but the method has been largely untested.

The success of buy-ins may be largely a determinant of the degree of professionalism. The higher the prestige of the occupation and the greater the concentration of specialists, the higher the level of collective morale as bridging the micro-macro gap (Hage 1980). This normally means there must be job autonomy, skilled workers, and as few repetitive tasks as possible. The channels of communication and surveillance may also be important in the success of buy-ins. Mechanisms that create the impression of being watched (surveillance on employees) will lower collective morale (Blau & Scott 1962). It is important to decrease visibility of task supervision, but at the same time, increase the level of communication. One of specific problems that impede employee buy-ins is the fear that management is monitoring e-mail and the contents of employee desktop computers.


    A general rule of thumb, assuming you are able to make the distinction, is that whenever you have low levels of individual morale, you should try intrinsic rewards such as employee self-evaluations or proficiency training programs. If you have low levels of collective morale, you should try extrinsic methods of reward such as pay equity, new equipment, more benefits. These, of course, are oversimplified shortcuts, but it appears that managers will not stop thinking you can motivate morale, so you might as well have rules of thumb. Here's a more specific list of things management can do to build morale:



(1) the SUGGESTION BOX. One of the oldest methods with some empirical support. Collective morale is increased when workers are consulted in advance and allowed to make suggestions, even if anonymously (Coch & French 1948).

(2) the EMPLOYEE INTERVIEW. These are 20-minute ventilation sessions where the employees, one-by-one, get to spill out all their thoughts and feelings to a manager, uninterrupted and unrecorded. However, there is usually a final report summarizing management's perception of the organization's collective morale. (Hamilton, NJ PD)

(3) the EMPLOYEE COUNCIL. These are teams put together by elected, rotated-every-quarter, representatives from each division of the organization. (West Bend, WI SO) Usually, the teams focus on 1-2 specific problems during the 3-month period, and produce a report with the following sections:

(4) EMPLOYEE INCENTIVE PROGRAMS. There are a variety of these, and a partial list would include:

Note: it is probably important to do a benefits survey to have employees rank which benefits are most important.

(5) the MASTER PATROL OFFICER (MPO) Program. This is a program for boosting the morale of veteran officers (Thrash 1992). It is basically a point system for various accomplishments throughout the police patrol career that lead to a special status, insignia, or designation within rank. (Pierce Co. SO, Tacoma WA)

Brightly Colored Uniforms Boost Morale
How to Turn Negative Workers into Positive Performers
How to Create Flexible Reward Systems
How to Run an Incentive Program
The Meaningful Workplace website
When You Have Employee Morale

Bennett, W. & K. Hess. (1998). Management and Supervision in Law Enforcement. Belmont, CA: West/Wadsworth.
Blau, P. & R. Scott. (1962). Formal Organizations: A Comparative Approach. San Francisco: Chandler.
Coch, L. & J. French. (1948). "Overcoming Resistance to Change" Human Relations 1:512-33.
Hage, J. (1980). Theories of Organizations. New York: Wiley.
March, J. & H. Simon. (1958). Organizations. New York: Wiley.
Parsons, T. (1951). The Social System. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
Perrow, C. (1988). Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay. New York: Random House.
Price, J. (1972). Handbook of Organizational Measurement. Lexington, MA: Heath.
Price, J. (1977). A Study of Organizational Turnover. Ames, IA: Univ. Press.
Stojkovic, S., D. Kalinich & J. Klofas. (1998). Criminal Justice Organizations Belmont, CA: West/Wadsworth.
Thrash, P. (1992). "An Incentive Program: Boosting Morale of Veteran Officers" Law Enforcement Technology Oct:51-7.

Last updated: Aug 28, 2010
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