Fostering Excellence
Bringing out the best in each of us
While the complaint is never really phrased as such, when people struggle with morale in the workplace, this is not an uncommon position on the problem. Morale is seen as a leadership problem and consequently, leadership is believed to own the solution. Leaders are judged to be good or bad based on the emotional experiences of individuals of the work place.

But is morale a leadership problem? Conventional wisdom says yes, but I would venture to disagree, at least in part. To that question I would say yes, but no. Morale is an emotionally charged word with loaded meanings, I would prefer not to use it in this discussion. What we are really talking about here is someone’s emotional experience in the workplace and there are many elements that go into that experience aside from just leadership actions:

  1. Competency at the job tasks
  2. Affinity with the job tasks
  3. Chemistry with work associates
  4. Behaviors of work associates
  5. Behaviors of the employee himself
  6. Behaviors of leadership

My Morale is Low, What is my Leadership Going to Do About it?

Competency at the job tasks - For those who are working in tasks they are good at, they are likely to get regular bolstering in self-confidence. Conversely, those who struggle with the job tasks will experience the opposite effect, drains on their self confidence. Leadership can help train employees, but if their intrinsic abilities are not aligned with the tasks, then the job they are in will wear down their self-confidence and morale. In these cases, employees would do well to seek other employment or have the emotional maturity to acknowledge the source of their morale problem-their refusal to leave a job that makes them unhappy. Beyond training, leadership can’t make anyone good at a task-that comes from within.

Affinity with job tasks - The sense of enjoyment one gets from performing tasks is also relevant to the emotional experience at the work place. When employees enjoy what they do, they regularly have positive emotional experiences-they thrive. Conversely, those who do not enjoy their job tasks wilt at work as they are emotionally smothered by doing things they dislike. Again, in these circumstances the onus is on the employee to seek employment they would enjoy or own the workplace unhappiness as their problem.

Chemistry with work associates – When employees find friends at work, and their associations are positive and fun, work can become play, drudgery evaporating. Conversely, when coworkers are not a good fit and friendship is not found at work, the workplace can be a lonely, perhaps boring place. While I would not argue that people should leave employment because they have no friends at work, they should be honest about this factor impacting their workplace happiness. Leadership is not charged with ensuring everyone at work has a friend-friendships are a personal matter.

Behaviors of work associates – We all have had good and bad experiences with work associates. When our work associates are respectful and productive, our experiences are positive. Conversely, when our work associates engage in poor conduct or are underproductive, our experiences or negative. No one wants work to with those who refuse to do their job (or can’t do it and refuse to seek other employment they could do) or with those who have poor conduct. In this matter, the employee has very little control-this is entirely a leadership matter. Leaders owe their employees coworkers who can and will do their jobs well.

Behaviors of leadership – Leaders can and do have impacts on the emotional experiences of employees. Leaders are responsible for creating the opportunity of a positive work experience, but are not responsible for the individual employee having that positive work experience. Leaders should create opportunities to excel and should ensure that work associates conduct themselves well and are productive. When leaders refuse to provide those opportunities, or after best efforts to develop, refuse to replace underproductive employees or choose to retain those who conduct themselves poorly, they have failed their workforce. More could be said here, but the heuristic is this – leaders who create opportunities for success, remove obstacles and nurture an environment where positive experiences are possible are doing what they should for their employees. Once that is done, the employee is responsible for how they emotionally experience work within that environment.

Behaviors of employee himself – The behaviors of the employees weigh in heavily to their emotional experiences at work. Have they employees aligned themselves in employment that maximizes their talents and their affinity with tasks? Do they conduct themselves appropriately at work? Are they invested in the work and do they show initiative? These behaviors, or the lack thereof, can be deal-breakers for a positive emotional experience at work. As important as behaviors is the interpretation of the emotional experience, or attitude. No one said this better than Charles R. Swindoll:

“The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude...I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you...we are in charge of our attitudes.”

For the purposes of this discussion, ‘10%’ is the work experience which includes the elements discussed above – competency and affinity with tasks, chemistry and conduct of work associates, and the behaviors of leadership.

The ‘90%’ of the equation is the attitude of the employee himself. This cannot be understated, and needs to be fully appreciated. Employees should not abdicate the responsibility for their emotional experiences to leadership and then blame their poor attitudes on leadership failures vis-à-vis morale. Morale is just another word for attitude after all.

Ultimately, what I am arguing for is emotional self-responsibility. There are some conditions we can control, others we can’t. Even with those that we can’t, we can control our attitude or whether we choose to remain in those conditions (i.e. the employment). Making poor choices with what we directly control, what environments we choose to remain in or with our attitude is not a leadership problem, it is a personal problem.

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Assessing Productivity Shortfalls

Products and Services

Six Fundamentals of Accountability in the Workplace

Are there bad leaders out there that make life at work horrible? Absolutely, and I write extensively endevouring to help leaders improve their performance. If you are working under toxic leadership, seek new employment; you don’t owe anything to a leader who has not provided a work environment with opportunities for a positive experience. If leadership has done their part in creating opportunity, however, the onus is on the employee to have the positive experience that is possible, but not guaranteed or owed.
Michael Farr, PMP, is a Chief Master Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force and founder of He is passionate about recognition and enabling professionals to motivate their organizations through recognizing their member’s excellence. When he is not slaying dragons with his kids, he can be found at @fosterxcellence on Twitter and @fosteringexcellence on Facebook.