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Assessing and Building Morale

In its first quarter for 2007, United Airlines reported its second straight quarterly loss, just short of $200 million. Other troubling results: 11th place in on-time arrival, increasing seat mile costs, increasing number of customer complaints for mishandled bags, and poor ratings in a number of customer service metrics. Most recently, an employee error caused a shutdown of the computer system leading to flight delays and cancellations. United's troubles occurred while other airlines were resurgent, some showing profits for the first time since 9/11. One culprit for these poor results -- according to analysts, workers, and even company executives -- is low morale.1 A recent issue of Management Matters asserted that managers often waste time trying to make employees happy; often, happiness is used synonymously with morale. Indeed, United's low morale has been blamed on, among other things, repercussions of cut pay, terminated pension plans, and short staff. Unhappy workers, for sure.

Morale, however, is not the same as keeping employees happy and, unlike happiness, morale should be a concern of managers. Broadly, morale is defined as satisfaction with the work situation. Alexander Leighton defined morale as "the capacity of a group of people to pull together persistently and consistently in pursuit of a common purpose."2 While happiness is personal and individual, morale is a sentiment that resides in the context of work.

High morale can be maintained despite an unhappy group. For example, the crew of Apollo 13, riding a crippled ship in outer space, cold and cramped, and certainly unhappy with their circumstance, maintained a high level of morale through the whole crisis. While managers can't make individuals happy, they should work to maintain morale.

One challenge with morale is that is not a simple outcome that can be accomplished -- it is a consequence of many actions over time that impact attitudes about the work. The low morale at United didn't just happen, but developed over a period of time. Thus, it is important that managers monitor morale of the unit. Theodore Caplow says, in his classic Managing an Organization, that high morale exists to the extent that a unit's members:

  • Pursue goals
  • Obey important rules, and
  • Choose to stick around.3
When these things break down, employees will likely underperform, which leads to poor results like those experienced by United Airlines.

It can be easy to ignore morale problems until it's too late -- such as when reports show increasing complaints or late arrivals. Managers, therefore, must look for the indicators of morale. Some of the high morale indicators that Caplow suggests are:
  1. Although lateness and absenteeism occur, they never seem to interfere with getting required results.

  2. The turnover rate is stable or declining. Few people leave voluntarily except for compelling personal reasons.

  3. Recruits are absorbed very quickly into the informal social network.

  4. Everyone seems to know his or her job, and agreement about goals is taken for granted (even if not everyone appears happy all of the time).

  5. Dismissals and demotions are rare and do not require elaborate precautions.

  6. There is relatively little discussion of pay and privileges as the existing distribution is usually taken for granted.
While it is true that the recent contract for United employees has left them dissatisfied, it is unlikely that simply raising their pay and benefits will improve morale. The chairman of the pilots' union said as much when he blamed the company's morale problems on poor management, charging that the airline "currently lags behind its peers by most measures" and compared to competitors lacks "a vision for the future."

The CEO for United understands this as well, stating that "the best tonic we have for morale is a healthy company." Even unhappy workers want to perform well and be part of a winning group. Managers can best build morale by gaining cooperation around clear common ends -- and by setting clear expectations for results and providing timely feedback.

Assessing and fostering morale is the job of managers.

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1From article by Susan Carey, "United struggles to navigate new course," The Wall Street Journal, June 29th, 2007, p. A10.
2Definition found in Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morale
3Theodore Caplow, Managing an Organization, 2nd Ed. Holt Rinehart, & Winston,


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