An Investigation of On-the-Job MoraleHowever important one may believe good morale is for employee performance, it can seem a vague concept, invoked with only casual understanding of its characteristics, drivers, and impacts.
In a May 2007 Harvard Business Review article, Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Steven Kramer, an independent researcher and Amabile's husband, report on research that clarifies how morale fits into the causal flow that determines how well employees perform.
Amabile and Kramer don't actually use the word "morale," which generally refers to the overall esprit de corps at an organization. Rather, they talk about the "inner work life" of individuals the interplay of three mental phenomena that are triggered by workday events:
- perceptions of the organizational context of one's work (e.g., the degree of collaboration and cooperation, the degree of openness to new ideas)
several numerical questions, asking participants to rate their own perceptions of various aspects of the work environment, their mood, and their motivation that day, as well as their own work and the team's work that day. There was also an open-ended question asking people to list the main work tasks they engaged in that day. The most important question was also open-ended; it asked people to biefly report one event that stood out in their minds from the workday.The diary entries enabled Amabile and Kramer to trace how workday events affected the employees' inner work lives, and how the latter, in turn, affected employee and organizational performance.
In considering the role of managers after all, the actions of managers are one type of workday event Amabile and Kramer were disappointed to find that most managers are oblivious to employees' inner work lives and, concomitantly, to the impact of those inner work lives on performance.
Amabile and Kramer argue that alert managers recognize that they can promote high performance by
- facilitating employees' progress with their work
- treating employees decently as human beings
- providing direct help
- providing adequate resources
- reacting to successes and failures with a learning orientation (as opposed to purely evaluative orientation)
- setting clear goals, and explaining the rationale for the goals and for any changes to the goals
When a manager's actions impede progress, that behavior sends a strong signal. People trying to make sense of why higher-ups would not do more to facilitate progress draw their own conclusions perhaps that their work is unimportant or that their bosses are either willfully undermining them or hopelessly incompetent.The underlying reason for the positive impact of facilitative and respectful manager behavior is that it makes it more likely that employees will have "good days" days on which they feel happy, have positive perceptions of the workplace, and are intrinsically motivated to meet goals. And it is on good days, that employees get the most accomplished.
Amabile and Kramer conclude: "Far and away,the best boosts to inner work life were episodes in which people knew they had done good work and managers appropriately recognized their work."
So, if you want to maintain good morale and to realize the associated boost to performance that it brings paying attention to how your actions affect employees' emotions, their perceptions of their work context, and their motivation is vital. Seems like common sense, but as Amabile and Kramer point out, helping employees maintain a positive state of mind is all too often not at the front of managers' minds.