The Secret Ingredients of High Morale


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.Set Clear Priorities
Shifting priorities undercuts morale. People don't like to throw away the results of their hard work. Switching priorities can have the same effect as multitasking-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 three-to-six-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 three 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, and defeats productivity. There's only one thing more de-motivating than over specifying the goal and the method: over specifying 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. It's 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 that 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 and that you have serious concerns about meeting the goals even if everyone does their 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, which widens a chasm between practitioners and management. 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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