Morale is one of those terms you hear a lot, but it’s never exactly clear what some users mean when they use it.  We have all heard about organizations and individuals with good morale and bad morale, and we all seem to have a personal sense about what the word describes, but I think that it’s more important to focus on the practical impact of good or bad morale.

In the past few days, I’ve read three local stories that mentioned morale.  First, there was a story about our Chapel Hill Police Department and the impact of the Yates incident on the department’s morale.  Then there’s the story about the morale impact of the criticism of the Carrboro Police Department’s recent handling of the protest at the CVS property.  A third example is a story about morale at Phillips Middle School.

All three of these stories are about how “bad” morale weighs on the members of the organization.  To me, that means that we are talking about the employees’ outlook, optimism, self-concept, and an assured belief in themselves.  Also important is how people feel about their organization, its mission, goals, defined path, daily decisions, and employee appreciation.  Morale is also about the ability of a group of people to pull together over time as they pursue a common purpose.

When morale is high, you can sense the high level of pride that members have in belonging to the organization.  In military and military-like organizations, we call this esprit de corps and, as intangible as it is, we know it is critical to mission accomplishment, especially when the task is difficult and the challenges are many..  General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower knew a lot about the effectiveness of organizations and their morale, but he also understood human nature.  To that end, he said, “The best morale exists when you never hear the word mentioned. When you hear it, it’s usually lousy.”

Eisenhower nailed it!  The fact that leaders are talking about morale means that they recognize that there is a problem and that it’s not just their problem.  Some might say that if leaders are seeing morale negatively affected because people criticize their organizations, then those leaders need to toughen-up their people.  In my opinion, such a simple, glib retort would only come from someone who doesn’t get it.  What I think we are dealing with is public employees who might now feel uncertainty about what is expected from them and how some might want them to perform in ways that differ from the established standards of their profession.

From my experience, most who serve the public fervently believe in what they are doing, have an especially strong commitment to upholding their oaths, and performing as their training taught them.  They accept that they have a difficult job, and they attempt to do it as well as they can.  Sure, they might appreciate higher pay and more benefits, but I’m willing to bet that they would put citizen appreciation and the support of their leaders for what they do as something more valuable to them than money. 

As some citizens and elected leaders continue to send mixed messages to those who serve us, morale will take a hit.  Have you ever seen that t-shirt that says, “The beatings will continue until morale improves?”  As that happens, I hate to think about what happens next.  What do you think?