Let us turn our attention to what is known about morale. Just as importantly, we survey what is not known. The perspective of positive psychology is useful in charting future research directions.
Etymology and Meaning
The word morale is French, and it entered common use in the middle 1700s. Originally meaning morality or good conduct, the word soon came to mean confidence and was applied in particular to military forces.1 Demoralisation appeared later, during the French Revolution, and it originally meant the corruption of morals. Again, the term was typically applied in a military context and described the goal of lowering the confidence of an opposing army.
As used today, morale is a cognitive, emotional, and motivational stance toward the goals and tasks of a group. It subsumes confidence, optimism, enthusiasm, and loyalty as well as a sense of common purpose. Morale is used to describe individuals as well as groups, a complexity that poses an ongoing challenge in attempts by social scientists to study it. Esprit de corps, another French term, is used to describe the morale of an entire group and brings with it additional connotations of devotion to the group and concern with its honor (Manning, 1991; Mitchell, 1940).
Contemporary uses of morale extend beyond the military. So, morale refers to the collective will of the citizens of a nation at war to sustain fighting. Morale also figures in discussions of sports teams, schools, and work organisations (e.g. Hart, 1994).
As already mentioned, morale is a term used to describe either individuals or groups. Military commanders, for example, are less concerned with the morale of individual soldiers than with the morale of their forces as a whole (Baynes, 1967). At the same time, it is difficult to imagine a group with high morale in which only a few members are committed and confident. Most groups of sufficient size can sustain good morale with a handful of alienated or disgruntled members, but there is obviously a tipping point.
In previous social science approaches to morale, some theorists have regarded morale solely as a feature of the group (e.g. Grinker & Spiegel, 1945; Leighton, 1943; Motowidlo & Borman, 1978), whereas other theorists have seen it solely as a feature of the individual within a group (e.g. Manning, 1991). No good purpose is served by approaching morale in such either–or terms, especially given multi-leveling analytic strategies that allow constructs to be examined at both the individual level and the group level (Britt & Dickinson, 2006). We will therefore speak about individual morale and group morale.
Assessment remains a challenge, and researchers should not take the convenient path of simply measuring individual morale by interview or questionnaire and then aggregating the results to yield an index of group morale. Many researchers follow this strategy, leaving unexamined links across levels of analysis, which one would expect to vary across groups.
Any sports fan is familiar with teams where the whole is more or less than the sum of its parts. For example, the 1972 Miami Dolphins of the National Football League performed much better as a team than one would have expected given the personnel, whereas the 2004 United States Olympic men's basketball team, composed of individual stars, never meshed as a team and performed well below expectations.
Researchers need to include measures at the group level that are methodologically independent of individual-level measures. Group-level morale may well be an emergent property that needs to be conceptualised, measured, and studied in its own right.
Morale is an ordinary language concept that resists characterisation in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions (Wittgenstein, 1953). Said another way, morale is multidimensional, defined by a family of relevant components. Positive psychologists have profitably approached other ordinary language concepts—like happiness and character—by articulating their dimensions and devising separate measures of them (e.g. Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). We suggest that morale be approached in the same way and described for a given group or individual in terms of a profile of its relevant components. Some of these components may overlap, but it seems unlikely that any group or individual can “have it all” with respect to all the dimensions of good morale. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote that “happy families are all alike”, but we disagree. The routes to happiness (good morale) within families and other groups are likely as numerous as the routes to individual happiness and well-being (Peterson et al., 2005).
Research to date has usually treated morale in unidimensional terms, making it impossible to address what we consider basic questions about morale. Do different types of groups have different morale profiles? Do different dimensions have different consequences? Do these vary as a function of group type? Are some components easier to cultivate than others? Once set in place, are some components resilient and others fragile?
What are the components of morale? A definitive answer would require extensive linguistic analyses and discussions with focus groups of different types, but here is a tentative set of dimensions based on our reading of the literature:
- • Confidence that group can perform its specific tasks and achieve its broader goals, given current capabilities and situational demands; e.g. one of the unofficial mottoes of the United States Marine Corps is “The difficult is done at once; the impossible takes a little longer.”
- • Enthusiasm for the daily activities of the group; e.g. the energised workplaces described by Dutton (2003); Mother Teresa's order, the Missionaries of Charity, selects members based on their demonstrated joy in serving the “poorest of the poor”.
- • Optimism that the group will experience more success than failure; e.g. optimistic basketball teams beat the point spread following losses much more frequently than pessimistic basketball teams (Rettew & Reivich, 1995).
- • Belief in the group's capability, based on its personnel, training, past history, and observation of similar groups succeeding; e.g. faculty members of a school believing that they can successfully execute the curriculum (Goddard, Hoy, & Hoy, 2004).
- • Resilience in the face of adversity and challenges; e.g. the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army successfully defended Bastogne during World War II's Battle of the Bulge despite an overwhelming enemy and extremely adverse weather (Gardner & Schermerhorn, 2004).
- • Leadership that recognises, values, and respects the contributions of group members; good leaders vis-à-vis morale are those who empower, nurture, and develop individual members of the group, who share hardships with them; who establish an ethical climate, and who foster open communication; e.g. the United States Army views positive leadership as the single most important contributor to high morale (Department of the Army, 2006; Pennington, Hough, & Case, 1943; Stouffer, Lumsdaine, Lumsdaine, Williams, Smith, Janis, Star, & Cottrell, 1965).
- • Mutual trust and respect between group members and leaders shown in the conviction that all can fulfill their respective duties as well as look out for the interests of the group and other group members; e.g. Major Richard Winters, Commander of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the United States Army, the accomplished unit portrayed in the movie “Band of Brothers”, attributed his unit's high morale to the trust and respect between leaders and followers (Department of the Army, 2006; Golembiewski & McConkie, 1975; Sweeney, Thompson, & Blanton, in press).
- • Loyalty to the group and its members; e.g. the warrior ethos by which United States service members strive to live requires them to place their mission first and never to leave behind a fallen comrade (Department of the Army, 2006).
- • Social cohesion between and among group members; e.g. do group members find close friends at work?
- • A common purpose that is understood, accepted, and pursued by group members; e.g. the corporate motto of Zingerman's delicatessen in Ann Arbor (MI)—“Selling food that makes you happy . . . giving service that makes you smile”—is taken seriously by its employees and reinforced by company norms and rewards (Baker & Gunderson, 2005).
- • Devotion to group members and to the group as a whole, shown by mutual care, support, and kindness; e.g. the American Psychological Association's (2007) annual awards for psychologically healthy workplaces take into account the degree to which a workplace encourages and achieves work–life balance.
- • Sacrifice of the individual's needs and well-being for the good of the group; e.g. United States Medal of Honor winners, many of whom gave their lives, do so within their recognised group roles—leaders by leading and followers by following (Park, 2005).
- • A compelling group history that is both a source of pride and a set of high expectations for future performance; e.g. the United States Military Academy displays plaques honoring every graduate who won the Medal of Honor.
- • Concern with the honor of the group; e.g. the 2007 New England Patriots of the National Football League, a team where some players took pay cuts to allow other players to make more money, had the typical system of fines for tardiness and the like, but these were enforced by the players themselves, not the coaches.
- • A sense of moral rightness about the group and its tasks that provides the group members with a sense of meaning; e.g. the genetics research teams described by Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, and Damon (2001) as doing “good work” in both scientific and moral senses.
Most of these features apply at the level of the individual and the group, although some make more sense at one level or the other. For example, an individual cannot be cohesive, and sacrifice is something that individuals are more likely to do for the group than the group for the individual. Each of these dimensions of morale exists along a continuum. They are not either–or features of a group or individual, despite shorthand ways of speaking.
Previous writers have pointed out the conceptual overlap between morale and such notions as job engagement, work satisfaction, work pride, teamwork, task cohesion, and collective efficacy, and they may try to distinguish morale from them. Our belief is that these are ultimately futile arguments because they attempt contrasts across different levels of analysis. If morale is regarded in multidimensional terms, these similar notions are simply seen as specific dimensions of morale, not as concepts that can or need to be distinguished from the broader concept of morale.
Another implication of seeing morale in multidimensional terms is the realisation that the components of morale have been studied, sometimes extensively, albeit under different names. But conspicuously missing are studies that look at more than one dimension at a time and examine the occasional inconsistencies or tradeoffs among them. Consider the Oakland Athletics of Major League Baseball in the 1970s. The Athletics won the World Series three times while hating their owner Charles Finley and often one another. Did this team have good morale or poor morale? The answer differs depending on the dimension of morale that is emphasised. The Athletics were probably very low on social cohesion and certainly on devotion, but they were probably very high on common purpose, confidence, and optimism. This profile is obviously sufficient for a baseball team to win games, perhaps because baseball teams are less interdependent than teams in most other sports. Different profiles are likely associated with other sorts of success by other sorts of groups.
The components of morale are states, not traits, and they are thoroughly situated in a given context. It makes no sense to discuss morale and its components per se, but only with respect to the tasks and goals of a given group at a given point in time. Morale and its components accordingly wax and wane, and an important goal of research is to specify the factors that lead to higher or lower levels.
Despite the apparent importance of morale, however it is defined, empirical research on morale per se is scant.2 Like other positive topics, morale seems to have been overlooked by researchers with a focus on problems. There are far fewer articles on military morale, for instance, than there are articles on post-traumatic stress disorder among military personnel (Britt & Dickinson, 2006). Along these lines, group-level research often focuses on unhealthy work environments marked by group conflict, harassment, bias, prejudice, and poor communication problems, and rarely on healthy work environments that encourage well-being and flourishing—concomitants of good morale (Cameron & Caza, 2004).
When research has been conducted on morale, it has typically relied on self-report measures. These face-valid questionnaires are often very brief—sometimes but single items—and cannot reflect the multidimensionality of morale. Questionnaires are usually administered to individual group members, who are asked about their own morale and/or that of the group. Most research has looked at morale at the level of the individual. When group-level morale is of interest, composite scores are often formed by aggregating across individuals (e.g. Motowidlo & Borman, 1978). This research strategy is stark and indeed an oversimplification, but some interesting results have nevertheless emerged. However, much more has been learned about the antecedents of morale than its consequences, perhaps because the relevant research is easier to conduct retrospectively than prospectively.
What contributes to morale? Let us look at what is known about morale in different groups. In the military, good morale—conceptualised and measured unidimensionally—is influenced by extensive training, sufficient material resources, and the sheer size or strength of the fighting force vis-à-vis the enemy (Henderson, 1986; Kollett, 1982). Also contributing to military morale are good leadership, mutual trust and respect among group members, the clarity of the mission, perceived public support, past combat success (unit history), and low casualty rates (Department of the Army, 2006). Military units with low turnover rates tend to have higher morale, as do units where members expect a lengthy tenure. Interestingly, many who have written about military morale note that abstract ideology plays little role in morale. Those in the military do not fight for their flag or their country as much as for their brothers and sisters who share a trench with them (Little, 1964; Stouffer et al., 1965).
High-morale military units are well known. Consider such examples as the Roman Praetorian Guard, Napoleon's Imperial Guard, the French Foreign Legion, the United States Special Forces, and the Soviet Spetsnaz. It is hardly a coincidence that high morale military units are also highly selective (“elite”) ones, which raises the question about the psychological characteristics and abilities that individuals bring into these groups. What is the basis of selection? Obviously physical talents and skills are important for military units, but what about positive traits like teamwork, perseverance, and optimism?
Along these lines, the psychological characteristics of the military leader are also thought to be critical in determining the degree of morale shown by his or her unit (Department of the Army, 2006; Gal, 1986). For example, a comprehensive study of World War II veterans found that the most competent leaders led by example, endured hardships with their soldiers, stayed calm under pressure, and took actions to protect the welface of those they commanded (Stouffer et al., 1965). The United States Army views shared effort and mutual respect as critical determinants of high morale in units (Department of the Army, 2006).
In the workplace, good morale—again, conceptualised and measured as a unidimensional construct—is enhanced by job security, safety, good salary and benefits, realistic opportunities for advancement, adequate resources to do the required work, the status of the work, and the social value accorded the goals of the work organisation (Hart & Cooper, 2001). As in the military, morale in the workplace is influenced by the personal psychological characteristics of the individual workers as well as the manager or employer (Peterson & Park, 2006). If workers have their basic needs met and feel valued as individuals by those to whom they answer, their morale is apt to be higher (Hersey, 1955).
In schools, the overall morale of teachers is enhanced by role clarity, recognition, participative decision-making, a reasonable work load, effective disciplinary policies, successful students, a coherent curriculum, and the opportunity for professional growth (Anderson, 1953; Coverdale, 1973; Hart, Wearing, Conn, Carter, & Dingle, 2000; Young, 2000). Our own ongoing research suggests that highly engaged teachers bring to their work perseverance, social intelligence, zest, and humor. Again, supportive leadership is thought to be critical for good morale among teachers (Rempel & Bentley, 1964; Silverman, 1957).
When nations are at war, the overall morale of the general population is thought to be affected by the degree to which citizens understand the objectives of the war and agree with them, believe that the war is worth winning, and further are confident that the war can be won (Watson, 1942). Fear of what losing the war would produce is also important.
Social scientists have long studied the role of propaganda in shaping beliefs and attitudes of citizens and ultimately their overall morale vis-à-vis a war. Yet again, the personal psychological characteristics of individuals, citizens as well as government leaders and spokespeople, influence the morale of a nation at war. Well known is the highly successful United States war bond during World War II that featured singer Kate Smith (Merton, Fiske, & Curtis, 1946). Smith's signature song—“God Bless America”—and her wholesome image helped muster popular support for the war effort and the sacrifices it required of civilians. The words of national leaders during trying times can be defining points: e.g. Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”); Winston Churchill in 1941 (“Never never never give up”); and Ronald Reagan in 1987 (“Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall”).
For a more contemporary example, consider the ongoing success of the Iraq football team in international competition and how it inspires—and temporarily unites—the conflict-ridden nation (Aliraqi, 2007; BBC News, 2007). Hussein Saeed, the nation's football federation president, observed that “We want to give a good example for the politicians and for the people that when we are united and working together—like the federation, the coach and the players—we can win against all the difficulties we face . . . I think this team is a good thing for our people. Football is sending a good message to all the people about friendship and everything else.” The team members include both Sunni and Shia, a distinction irrelevant to players and fans alike when the team is on the field. Many of the players have lost immediate family members to violence, and the team's physiotherapist died in a car bombing just prior to the 2007 Asia Cup competition, which was won by the Iraq team. The morale on the team is excellent, and it pervades the entire nation when the team plays. According to Saeed, “When the football team is playing, there is no bombing in Iraq because all the people are watching the game.”
In all of its senses, morale is thought to be motivating, leading to perseverance and presumably success at group tasks, especially under trying circumstances (Manning, 1991). Therefore, the lack of research into the consequences of morale is surprising and lamentable. It is clear that the components of morale, as we have identified, have positive outcomes at both the individual and group levels.
For example, at the individual level, devotion (aka charity) is associated with good physical health (Brown, Nesse, Vinokur, & Smith, 2003), optimism with perseverance (Peterson & Barrett, 1987), enthusiasm (aka zest) with work satisfaction (Peterson, Park, Hall, & Seligman, in press), and purpose (aka meaning) with good mental health (Peterson & Park, in press-b). At the group level, confidence (aka collective efficacy) leads to sustained efforts (Zaccaro, Blair, Peterson, & Zazanis, 1995), concern with honor leads to efforts to avenge insults (Nisbett & Cohen, 1996), and a sense of moral rightness leads to innovation and creativity (Murray, 2003). What we do not know is how these components considered together foreshadow success, and whether the type of success is a function of the type of group and its purpose.
A critical question is whether morale and its components are the causes of success or its mere concomitants or consequences. The sports cliché that “winning cures all ills” is a broadly applicable caution to researchers not to confuse the putative consequences of high morale with its possible causes. Only recently have positive psychologists been able to show that happiness is more than epiphenomenal, actually leading to desirable consequences in a variety of domains—academic, occupational, physical, and social—as opposed to being along for the (happy) ride of success (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). And even more recently, positive psychologists have shown that the relationship between happiness and success depends on the specific outcome of interest (Oishi, Diener, & Lucas, 2007). Happy people outperform unhappy people in almost all domains, but the “very happy” do not do as well at school or work as the “merely happy”. However, one can never be too happy if success is gauged interpersonally. Similar nuances may emerge when morale and its components are studied longitudinally with respect to various outcomes.