I recently asked a friend at a public sector organisation what morale was like following some challenging developments. His reply surprised me: he said “I don’t think we have morale!” That started me thinking about what we mean by morale, and so what not having any could imply.
High morale seems easy to understand. We associate it with confidence and optimism, and a belief that whatever the challenges facing us we have the capability, strength and resilience to overcome them. Similarly, low morale describes a situation where there is no such confidence or optimism, and far from overcoming the challenges, we feel they are more likely to overwhelm us. That could include situations where we have simply lost hope that an unhappy situation can get any better.
It appears then that there are two components necessary to describe morale: first there must be a situation involving uncertainty or change that creates threats or challenges, and then there is our response to that situation. “No morale” must mean that either there is no uncertainty, change or need for change (unlikely), or, if there is, there is no apparent response to it. In my friend’s organisation, it was clearly the latter. The status quo was tolerable, even comfortable, and there was a belief (based on past experience?) that whatever anyone said, in practice nothing much would change. No one felt any particular discomfort with the status quo. Consequently, the best thing to do was to ignore the whole thing. They felt no need to respond.
No morale = no change
If that is what “No morale” means, the consequences seem almost certain to be “No change”. For anyone trying to lead change, “No morale” is far worse than low morale. At least the latter recognises the challenges. You can develop confidence in the ability to overcome them. If there is no morale, the change leader’s first job is to create some – even if it is low.