Morale is more than just the rah-rah-rah attitude it takes to keep your failing Little League team going. It represents the level of commitment your team members have to one another and to the cause you all serve.
Season 5, Episode 25 of Deep Space 9, In the Cards, gives us a lot of examples - both good and bad - that demonstrate how our actions impact the morale of those we’re leading.
Let’s start with a bad example. Sisko, yet again, serves as our fallible hero. That’s not a bad thing - leadership examples that are human are a lot easier to follow than those who seem to rise above what any normal person can achieve. But I digress.
Our first key to improving and maintaining morale is this: treat those who make mistakes with grace and kindness.
When Sisko’s son, Jake, reveals that he has been up to no good (well, it was actually a cover-up for a surprise, but that’s beside the point), he reacts pretty drastically. In my opinion, and the opinions of psychologists, medical and parenting professionals, Sisko’s reaction is harmful, even to a person as old as Jake. In fact, Doctor David Sack addressed this in a Psychology Today article that reminds parents that the key is to come from a place of love, with a desire for health and wellness. Yelling and immediate reactions have the potential to close the door to future, more productive conversations about the topic.
Frustration, and even anger, are totally understandable. But a much better strategy is admitting that and giving yourself time to calm down. Rather than shutting down the conversation immediately, Sisko could have said, “Jake, I am having a hard time processing this right now. I’m frustrated and getting angrier by the second. I need you to wait in your quarters until we’re ready to discuss this.” He could have taken the opportunity to calm down, collect himself, and handle it like a mature human being.
But, as I mentioned, Sisko is fallible. He’s giving us an opportunity to learn from his mistakes. Remember our first key: treat mistakes with grace and kindness. Particularly when you have someone already outrightly confessing their failures to you, it is important to respond with grace. You don’t ever want to create a fear-based culture that causes people to hide things from you.
There will come a time that a team member will way cross the line. Blowing up at them and yelling will do nothing more than exacerbate the issue and erode trust between you. Admit and share your anger and frustration, professionally, and then address the behavior when you can behave in an appropriate manner.
Our second key to improving and maintaining morale is paint the dumpster fire. What? That’s my elegant way of saying to stay optimistic. This is something Sisko does right in this episode. He shares a lesson with his team, that his father told him: “Even in the dark, there’s something that will make you smile.”
When you are the leader of a team, one of your duties is to motivate the team. Or, more accurately, to create environments in which people can choose to be motivated. This often means spending time with people, hearing their problems, and working with them towards solutions. I know I find myself often putting a new coat of paint on something that isn’t going great.
Years ago we implemented a new software system for processing payments. It was, objectively, a total failure. But we were invested; no going back. Now, I didn’t lie to my team or try to make them think everything was fine. But I would try to put a positive angle on things. We had to live with this, we might as well smile while we swim through burning oil to get smacked in the face just for doing it, you know!
That’s what Sisko does. That’s what Jake is talking about at the beginning of the episode. He helps keep people in a positive space. He often does this by keeping them connected to the mission and by actively listening and participating in conversations with his team.
Going through hard times as a team is inevitable, and almost normal. I say almost normal because if they persist, we really shouldn’t normalize them. There are limits to optimism. Sometimes our down-in-the-dumps feeling is actually meant to tell us something is wrong. Or some things are wrong. Those times when we show up at work and feel all the life force drain out of our bodies. Not just one day, not just one week, but months on end.
In this episode, a really cool thing happened. Jake had to go on a journey to do something for his dad. He could have just won the auction, given the card to his dad, and we could have all moved on, but that’s not what the writers did here.
Instead, Jake and Nog had to help others along the way. Nog’s concept of incentive-based economics was an excellent framework for this. As a leader, and especially as a manager, this framework is worth its weight in gold-pressed latinum!
It’s not about a monetary exchange, it’s about helping a person get or achieve what they want, so they can give you what you want. They need some weird medical stuff from Bashir. Bashir wants his teddy bear back. They sneak into Leeta’s room – more on Leeta in future episodes – get Kukalaka and return him to Bashir. He is over the moon excited and happily gives them the anaerobic gel stuff.
You can directly apply this with your teams. You’re the manager, and you want to maximize the efficiency of a team member. But what do they want? Really want? We’ve talked in earlier episodes about the fact most people feel rewarded when they know their work matters and when they are working on something they care about or are interested in. So talk to them! Find out what those things are, and then do them! You will get amazing things from your team and for your organization.
I was talking with a colleague that works for one of our partners. They were sharing they had an employee they were really struggling with. They would come to work and just do the absolute bare minimum, and that was on a good day. They said this employee was good and had real potential but just couldn’t seem to motivate them to do their job well…or even just consistently.
So they took what they called a strengths-based approach, where you learn the person’s strengths and interests and then let them do that work as much as possible. Sounds kind of like incentive-based economics, right? It also happens to be our third strategy for improving and maintaining morale.
In that case, they asked the person what they wanted to do and where their interests were. They shared they were working on a degree in education and wanted to teach. It just so happened that this organization was in heading into a substantial systems and policy change that was going to require intense and effective training. And, just to add to the beauty of the situation, my colleague was also responsible for building the team to develop and deliver that training.
They reassigned the person to that team, and since then, they have been thriving!
So what happens when you’re the one that needs a little encouragement? Who cheers the cheerer upper? Where do you go to refill your paint can to keep that dumpster fire looking decent? As a leader - no, as a person - we need this in our lives. A support system or a support team. A safe place to vent and be encouraged. And that doesn’t need to be in your chain of command. In this case, Sisko’s son did!
A great way to do this is to find a mentor. Someone has been there before. A mentor listens, but they also help guide your problem solving so you can be more successful and maintain a healthy level of morale within yourself as well.
A mentor doesn’t have to be someone in your organization. In fact, it’s ideal to have a mentor outside of your reporting structure, in my experience, at the very least. That helps create a safe place where you can be authentic and as transparent as possible without compromising anyone’s trust. Set up regular check-ins with them. Define your goals and what you hope to achieve with them. And leave space in your relationship so they can help you keep your nose above water in those times you can’t even imagine showing up to work.
Morale is critical to any team’s success. But as we learned in this episode, attitude reflects leadership. Start with your own morale, make sure someone is investing in you, and then invest in your team with a never-ending optimism and focus on their strengths. They’ll love you for it.
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