The Morale of the Story

Another day, another mountain to climb. Here’s how to keep your team’s spirits up (even when everything looks so hard).

The climber Joe Simpson faced an apparently insurmountable challenge: getting down from Peru’s Siula Grande, in ice and snow, with a smashed and useless leg. He lived to tell the tale — in the best-selling Touching the Void (Harper & Row, 1988) and subsequent movie — at least in part because of a mind game he played with himself. He broke the climb into small, achievable stages. Since each goal seemed relatively trivial, it was foolish not to try. And after each success, his morale was boosted enough to go on. Simpson overcame his sense of helplessness literally step by step.


In business, sometimes it feels as if you’re trapped alone on top of a mountain. Every leader will tell you that in today’s climate, most days are a tough climb, and that in order to succeed, every team must keep spirits high. In crisis situations, this definitely resembles being Joe Simpson. But there are plenty of employees at “good” companies who still feel disrespected and are unenthusiastic. And you’re the one facing long-term issues of how to keep those people focused, driven, and optimistic, without burning out. How do you get people to keep going when everything looks so hard?

1. Communication combats helplessness

Nothing kills morale like a staff’s feeling helpless. We all know that the business world changes constantly and that we have to adapt. But however well we understand this intellectually, random change throws us off kilter. This often plays itself out when there are rumors of a new strategic shift or a major personnel move, or worse, when the papers are littered with bad news about your company. A big part of boosting morale is about constructing a haven of logic that offers individuals shelter from any storm.

At its most basic, leaders have to communicate their awareness of business conditions and place their plans in that context. When a Boston design firm went through some tough times a few years ago, resentment between the management and the workforce grew. At a board meeting, executives expressed their frustration that no one was staying late and making that extra effort to do projects better, faster, cheaper.


But management had never spelled out the peril the company was in or revealed a plan for dealing with it. They didn’t want to frighten employees. In the absence of information, employees thought either that their managers couldn’t see the writing on the wall (so they were stupid) or that they did see it and were making secret plans for dealing with it (so they were sinister). Another mutually assured stalemate.

By contrast, the CEO of a furniture company successfully steered his employees through the trauma of being acquired with weekly, sometimes even twice weekly, updates. He’d gather everyone in the lunchroom and simply explain, this is where we are in the negotiations and this is where we’re going. Why was he so successful? Because what he said would happen did happen. Each time he outlined a future that came true, he demonstrated his own competence and reinforced trust.

2. Purpose is primary

Recent research into happiness demonstrates that the happiest people aren’t those with the most money but those with a sense of purpose — a sense that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves. At least some of this has to derive from work. The purpose of a business, then, must be explicit and go beyond boosting the share price or fulfilling some bland mission statement. People want to believe that they’re part of something meaningful. At WebCT, an e-learning provider based in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, CEO and president Carol Vallone involves employees by tying her business to the larger goal of making university education more accessible to more students. The sense of purpose doesn’t have to be grandiose or revolutionary, merely credible and anchored in values.


3. Rightsize your goals

Purpose is achieved through goals, and the acid test for any leader is defining the appropriate ones. Too small, and celebrations soon ring hollow. That’s why celebrating the 100th successful call at a call center feels so silly. The 100th call was going to be reached someday, no matter what. Nobody’s fooled into thinking it’s a big deal. Small goals breed cynicism.

But then too-big goals produce helplessness. Although it can be temporarily thrilling to rally around a big corporate slogan like “Kill the competition,” the reality is that employees can’t do it alone and they can’t do it quickly.

The best goals are those that are a bit of a stretch. When one of my former companies, ZineZone, repositioned itself, we had to redesign our products and processes in just 90 days. Everyone involved knew they’d set themselves up for a tough challenge and that reaching it was a real coup. And everyone knew that with each process they rethought, we were closer to the goal. We created energy and optimism rather than quashing it.


4. Focus

Sitting inside a very large corporation, it’s hard to feel in charge of your own fate. Corporate politics are distracting and enervating. So you have to focus on those areas where you can achieve tangible progress. When Jon Sichel worked in AOL’s music division, he quickly realized that there wasn’t anything he could do about the sea of troubles that surrounded the company earlier this decade. “A lot of us decided to put our heads down, ignore the news stories, and just focus on work. We all got sick of being scared, so we concentrated on areas where we could be successful. We couldn’t do anything about the SEC but we could close a deal.” Sichel stopped speculating about things he had no influence over and instead set himself goals that could make a difference. He went from inertia to progress.

Alignment between corporate goals and personal development has never been more critical. The more unpredictable the outside world, the more urgent the personal quest for self-determination.

5. Make it personal

For Sichel’s team, closing deals was a morale builder for two reasons: They knew that the deals mattered to the business, but they also knew that each deal added to their own career portfolio. There was a substantial and rational alignment between what was required for the company to succeed and what was required for the executives to succeed. Alignment between corporate goals and personal development has never been more critical. The more unpredictable the outside world, the more urgent the personal quest for self-determination. What employees look for in leadership is a sense that their personal journey and the company journey are part of the same story.

When these goals aren’t aligned, employees tend to whine with others, eager to share their sense of anger and injustice, polluting morale. The only way to combat this and get back on track is proper feedback. I remember a painful conversation from my days as a television documentarian in which I spelled out for Kevin, a trainee, all the mistakes he’d made in his first show. I think we both hated it — and, for a time, each other. But Kevin went on to win awards for excellent programs. He’d been given tools to influence his own fate.


6. Go with the flow

No company or team ever enjoys consistently high morale. This is because emotional peaks and troughs are inevitable in the business cycle. Vallone sees this every time WebCT ships a new product: “We had a company meeting and I said, ‘Okay, how many have experienced having a baby? It hurts like hell. You are cursing everybody that got you here. And when it’s over, you totally forgot that it happened and are ready to do another one. So let’s all acknowledge that we’re in a very painful experience right now and you’re probably mad at everybody.’ What I was trying to say is: This is natural.” Vallone doesn’t try to change the mood. She inspires others by demonstrating that she understands and isn’t afraid.

7. Get a life

Keeping morale high is like being on a diet: It requires consistent effort and is never over. But it can’t consume you. Just as we’re often exhorted to work more hours, to the exclusion of all other interests and commitments, in reality it’s those very interests and commitments that keep everyone fresh, alert, and aware. New ideas, stimuli, and motivation come from all around you. It’s the larger life, after all, that gives purpose to the climb.

Margaret Heffernan is a columnist for and the author of The Naked Truth (Jossey-Bass, 2004).