The Secret Ingredients of High Morale

©2004 Esther Derby

This column originally appeared on

Jessica and Sean scowled as they headed back to their cubicles after the company spirit meeting.

“I can’t believe they wasted two hours of our time with that award ceremony and stupid pep talk,” Jessica said. “Talk about de-motivating. Morale is bad around here with out wasting our time.”

“Yeah,” said Sean, “It was like the Oscars for the never-done-nothing crowd. I can’t believe they gave out those hokey certificates.”

“If they really want to build morale, they’d stop changing priorities every two days and let us get some work done,” Sean responded.

“When pigs fly,” answered Jessica. “I’ve got to get back to work… I’ll be here ’til midnight getting everything ready for the build.”

As Jessica and Sean turned down the hallway, Ted, their manager, peered around the corner to make sure the coast was clear. He hadn’t intended to eavesdrop, but he’d just heard an earful. “Do they really think managers are that clueless?” Ted wondered. “I always thought recognition and team spirit helped morale… that and a big pay raise. But maybe I’ve got it wrong.”

Ted may have been hearing something new, but we can’t be too hard on Ted. Recognition and rah-rah have been the conventional wisdom for building morale for a long time. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. Cheerleading is no substitute for the hard work of creating solid morale.

If you’re a manager or a team lead and you really want to improve the morale on your team, take heed of this list — inspired by some real experts on what it takes to build morale in software teams — a software team.

Keep workload reasonable. If your team is being asked to “do more with less” (and who isn’t these days), it’s time to set priorities and decide what not to do. You can only do it all if you don’t care what “done” means.

Set a sustainable pace. A 40-hour week will do wonders for morale. Enforced overtime will not. The more overtime people work, the less productive they are.

Avoid multi-tasking. Assigning people to work on several projects at once creates the illusion of progress. In fact, multitasking slows down progress. Most people are motivated by a sense of accomplishment — actually finishing something. Multi-tasking works against a sense of accomplishment because it takes longer to finish everything.

Articulate a clear mission for your group. People want to know that they are working on something worthwhile. Even if you’re not in control of the company mission or product mission, you can articulate a mission for your group. Perhaps your group’s mission is to “Provide accurate and timely information to management about the quality of the product” or “Create inviting and easy-to-navigate documentation that enables our customers to access all the features of Widget Master.” Say it. Document it. Then stick to it. When you’re deciding on goals and how to achieve them, ask yourself and your team “How will this action help us meet the mission of our group?”

Set clear goals. A mission tells the big story why your group exists. Every group needs goals, too — specific, time-bound achievable goals. Your group’s goals may relate to a release, a project, or a service level. People will pull in the same direction when they know what that direction is. Muddy goals make it hard for people to focus their efforts and contribute to poor morale.

Set clear priorities. Shifting priorities undercut morale. People don’t like to throw away the results of their hard work. And switching priorities can have the same effect as multi-tasking — nothing reaches completion. Change priorities often enough, and people will view the newest priority as “flavor of the day.” The reality of business is that external events may dictate changes. Iterative development, with its 3 6 week sprints, is one of the ways to manage for accomplishment in a shifting environment. If your organization can’t hold to one set of priorities for 3 weeks, it’s going to be hard to make forward progress in any direction.

Remove obstacles. This is one of the most powerful morale building tools in a manager’s toolkit. Find out what’s getting in the way and work to remove the impediment. When people see their managers are making it easier for them to work, morale goes up. Managers can’t always remove every obstacle. Let people know what you’re trying, and be honest if you can’t fix it.

Don’t over specify. Give people the goal, set them in the right direction and let them decide how to get there. People will come up with a surprising number of creative ways to achieve the goal. Telling people both what to do and how to do it stifles morale. There’s only one thing more de-motivating than over specifying the goal and the method: over specify the method, and not articulating the goal.

Deal with the un-jellers. It’s hard enough to build software without someone actively working against the goal. Its a manager’s job to field the best team possible. If there is a person whose interpersonal skills are making life hell for the rest of the team, deal with it. Sometimes that means moving someone off the team. Never underestimate the impact an un-jeller will have on the team.

Negotiate reasonable deadlines. We all know that we don’t always get to choose the release date. If you’re stuck with a hard date, prioritize the requirements and negotiate scope. Knowing from the get-go that the schedule is impossible to meet is not very motivating.

If you’re stuck with a hard date and a hard scope, talk to your team. Tell them you want everyone to work as hard as possible (but not overtime) and that you have serious concerns about meeting the goals even if every one does his best. Ask the team if they have any ideas on how to make the project work. Knowing that you recognize the situation the project is in will help the team remain focused and energized. Working reasonable hours is a better strategy for reaching goals than going on the fabled death march. Pep talks, contests, and certificates won’t build morale. They can be fun when things are going well, but when your team is in the pits, they contribute to cynicism. There’s no short-term fix or magic formula for boosting morale, but old-fashioned effective management may just do the trick.

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