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Morale: Whose Job is it, anyways?
Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.), MPA
Karl Von Clausewitz, a Prussian military general and military theorist,
identified morale as a fundamental military principle. Since Clausewitz
published On War morale has developed into a concept seen as critical to
organizations, including law enforcement. Unfortunately, morale is difficult to
define and in many circles has become somewhat synonymous with motivation. In
this article we will look at a very different definition of morale, its
potential effects and how the first line supervisor can affect it.
beatings will continue until morale improves
Often times, people consider morale the same as motivation. But, morale is not
about motivation. If it were, negative discipline could improve morale. There
are times negative discipline is used to improve performance. Negative
consequences can be a powerful tool in shaping behavior. So, if morale were
about behavior or performance, negative discipline might be a tool for improving
That is not to say that improved morale does not improve performance; it does.
The point is that there is a clear separation between morale and motivation.
High morale can be very motivating. High motivation can improve performance.
There is a linkage between morale and motivation but they are not he same.
Traditional definitions of morale include: the mood of individuals in the
workplace; attitude or spirit; how a unit feels about itself and its abilities;
and even, a state of individual psychological well-being. As you can see, these
definitions go back and forth between the individual and groups. We all have
good and bad days. Yet, as individuals who occasionally wake up on the wrong
side of the bed we generally dont affect the mood of the entire unit. As our
personal attitude ebbs and flows, the morale of our unit is marching to a
Morale is about groups and it might be defined as how a group feels about what
it does. For instance, this group feeling can be an expression of how high or
low the group values an activity. If a group of detectives has their job
suddenly changed and they find themselves working in uniform and issuing traffic
citations they may have lowered morale because they place a low value on working
in uniform and issuing citations.
For the detectives, their normal working conditions do not involve uniformed
activities nor issuing citations. The activity is outside their group norm and
not highly valued. Morale is about sub-group norms and values and their
alignment with larger organizational norms and values. For our hapless
detectives, working in uniform and issuing citations is not the norm nor highly
valued by the group. Therefore, when the larger organization imposes new norms
and values, if the group maintains its previous norms and values there is a
misalignment which manifests itself as low morale.
values and morale
Lets explore how a well delivered pep talk before the big game can improve
morale. What coaches tell players is that they can win, they are the best,
winning is important, etc. During a pep talk a coach is not motivating
players, rather he or she is reinforcing that the norm is victory and that it is
highly valued. The job during a pep talk is to align team attitude with the
larger organization norms and values. Again, morale is expressed as high or low
alignment of norms and values between an organization and its sub-groups.
Of course, if the team doesnt win it reverts to the norm of a losing and is out
of alignment with the larger norm. The teams morale is lower after the loss.
Conversely, a win could serve to reinforce the team belief in the norm and value
of victory. After a win, we would expect high morale.
A norm is the behaviors expected within a group of individuals. It is a belief
shared by the group about what is normal and acceptable. In groups we establish
norms so that we can anticipate and judge the actions of other group members.
In law enforcement we have a strong safety norm. We expect our peers to be
tactically sound and safe. We place a high value on this norm. Value is an
expression of worth we place on an activity. In other words, groups can have
many norms (safety and productivity) and they can place differing values on
those norms. For instance, we generally value safety over productivity.
from the top, within and outside
If your organization developed a new rule, policy or procedure that seemed to
value productivity over safety morale would be lower. Employees would have the
previous value scheme wherein safety was more important than productivity. They
would not feel good about the change. Also, like the detectives who were asked
to issue citations, if the organization rapidly changes the norm, employee
morale falls. It is the imposed change in the value or norm that lowered
Changes and challenges to sub-group norms sometimes come from outside the
organization. If a police officer is killed, especially in the line-of-duty,
many group norms and values are challenged. Daily, police officers face
dangerous situations. The norm is that we, as individuals or members of a team
overcome those dangers. The death can represent an inability to overcome danger
thereby challenging the norm. Moreover, we value human life, the individual
person who died and safety. An on-duty death can shake all three values. This
outside challenge to the norm can lead to a lowering of morale.
Sub-group changes from within are somewhat more subtle. A sub-group with high
congruence to organizational values can find itself drifting towards new
sub-group norms and values and experience lowered morale. As an example, weak
small-unit leadership can lead to deviant peer group behavior becoming the
norm. Perhaps the leader allows a clique to grow within a watch. A clique will
develop its own norms and values. Typically, it will value clique membership
more than watch membership. This change in values leads to a change in normal
behavior which manifests itself as a reduction in watch morale.
is more than motivation
When groups feel good about what they do, they experience high morale.
Certainly, high morale can lead to improved productivity and quality. If we
accept the proposition that morale is an expression of sub-group alignment with
larger organizational norms and values an increase in productivity and quality
makes sense. As an example, if the sub-group and the larger organization both
value traffic citations, traffic citations will be issued.
For law enforcement, sub-group alignment with larger organizational norms and
values is even more critical. Police officers work in a high discretionary
environment. Basically, we choose when to intervene and what to do. The use of
discretion is driven by our norms and values. In other words, our decisions
will reflect our alignment with organizational norms and values. Consider the
impact of norms and values alignment on high discretionary activities like the
application of reasonable suspicion, probable cause, use of force, and vehicle
pursuits. Simply put, high morale leads to greater group and individual
small-unit leadership impact morale
Because morale is an expression of how well your unit has incorporated
organizational norms and values morale is critical part of your leadership.
First, you should seek clarity in understanding your organizations norms and
values. You should understand how your organizations mission, goals or
objectives support the norms and values. After it is clear to you, express it
to your unit. Use your roll call time to incorporate a discussion on norms and
To lead a small unit you must be a story-teller. When you train or debrief
during roll call emphasize how actions reflected your organizations norms and
values. Be specific. Every action can be interpreted through your
organizations norms and values. Let your people know specifically how their
actions reflect positively or negatively on the overall norms and values.
The next time your offer praise consider that you are not praising the action so
much as praising how much the action reflects the norms and values. In law
enforcement, your unit is performing much of its critical work without the
benefit of your on scene leadership. The only way you can influence them at
critical moments is by reinforcing their understanding and commitment to your
organizations norms and values. It must be in their heart and only you can put
You dont have any control over outside influences. You are going to face the
implementation of an unpopular change in the norm. Somebody is going to dictate
a new policy or procedure. While you cant control the outside influence you
can control your units interpretation of it. Minor changes are fairly simply.
Introduce the new policy or procedure, provide your employees with as much
background on why the change is necessary, train them and then follow-up with
praise or sanction. Larger or dramatic changes are more difficult.
As with smaller changes to the norm, you must first seek clarity. Find out as
much as you can why the change is necessary. Make sure you know as much as
possible. I am always honest with my people. When I dont like something or
think a change is going to be difficult I admit it. As a follower, I have sat
through too many gratuitous roll calls where the sergeant or lieutenant is
giving us happy talk. I recommend you say something like, I dont like this
anymore than you do. But, this is how we are going to do it.
This admission is actually an emphasis of the norm of obedience to orders and
the value of you place on it. After you have made this admission, adopt the new
norm and place the appropriate value on it. Dont undermine yourself or your
organization by rolling your eyes or somehow expressing that you dont believe
the new change should be implemented. As with the minor change, provide your
employees with background information, training and follow through.
It is very likely that by addressing difficult issues head on you will improve
morale. Your leadership is a reflection on your ability to maintain alignment
between your unit and the larger organization. By praising actions as an
expression of organizational norms and values you will be providing your
employees with leadership during whatever situation they face. Morale is your