The Secret Ingredients of High Morale

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Summary:

Jessica and Sean have just attended the company spirit meeting, and they're feeling a little dispirited. What does it really take to build morale? The answer is both simple and difficult. Learn the ingredients of morale as identified by a group of experts—a project team that may be a lot like yours.

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 that stupid pep talk," Jessica said. "Talk about de-motivating. Morale is bad enough around here without 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 wanted to build morale, they'd stop changing priorities every two days and let us get some work done."

"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, the 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 him. 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 helping solid morale grow naturally.

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—it's inspired by some real experts on what it takes to build morale in software teams. Who were these experts? They were "actual people" on a software team.

Keep Workload Reasonable
If your team is being asked to "do more with less", 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 forty-hour week will do wonders for morale. Enforced overtime will not. The more overtime people work, the less productive they are.

Avoid Multitasking
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. Multitasking 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-specific, time-bound, achievable goals. Your group's goals may relate to a release, a project, or a service level. People will push towards the same direction when they know what that direction is. Muddy goals make it hard for people to focus their efforts, which hurts morale.

About the author

Esther Derby's picture Esther Derby

A regular StickyMinds.com and Better Software magazine contributor, Esther Derby is one of the rare breed of consultants who blends the technical issues and managerial issues with the people-side issues. She is well known for helping teams grow to new levels of productivity. Project retrospectives and project assessments are two of Esther's key practices that serve as effective tools to start a team's transformation. Recognized as one of the world's leaders in retrospective facilitation, she often receives requests asking her to work with struggling teams. Esther is one of the founders of the AYE Conference. She co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. She has presented at STAREAST, STARWEST and the Better Software Conference & EXPO. You can read more of Esther's musings on the wonderful world of software at www.estherderby.com and on her weblog at www.estherderby.com/weblog/blogger.html. Her email is derby@estherderby.com.

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