Team Morale Is Not an Events-Driven Protocol

October 16, 2008

I think we sometimes try to buy rather than earn morale.

Many companies, Microsoft included, have these things called “morale events.” They often run something like this: Take[1] the team[2] on some activity[3] and then have food[4] at the end.

  1. In other words, they require significant time out of the office, often spent in transport.
  2. In part as a consequence of #1, there are numerous no-shows.
  3. High-tech-industry managers seem to gravitate toward ropes courses, rock climbing, and mini-car racing. My own experience is that mini-golf and bowling work better — everyone is (usually) equally horrible, and we all start laughing at each other.
  4. Catered food at these events is usually very expensive and not terribly good. If you really want food to be a part, take the team out to a restaurant. It doesn’t even have to be a good restaurant; it’s the camaraderie that matters.

You can’t buy morale any more than you can buy morals. (I can’t tell you how many times in my 16 years here I’ve been invited to “moral” events.)

The best morale events I’ve ever been involved with have been cheap or free. Getting the team together for late-afternoon beer and cookies, for example, is cheap and effective. (Don’t cater it; buy and expense the beer if that’s allowed.)

Giving out $6 lunch or $3 espresso cards is also effective; have a bunch handy and award them generously for even minor above-and-beyond acts. (Obviously this particular item works best when the team is in one place.)

The best morale event I ever held, according to my team, was taking them out for an afternoon on my sailboat and letting them all take turns on the wheel. Yes, I’m lucky to have had a big sailboat, but the point is that I used “available materials” to come up with a fun, inexpensive (for Microsoft) event. Even as that particular team grew, they continued to look back fondly on that afternoon.

But I think the four biggest morale boosters are free:

  1. Trusting your team. There are many right ways to do something; it doesn’t have to be your way.
  2. Listening with respect, always, no matter how frazzled you are.
  3. Saying “thank you for your work” and “well done” regularly and at least some of the time in public.
  4. Telling your team the truth rather than trying to build your status by information-hiding.
  5.  

I won’t pretend I have always practiced what I preach; I certainly screw it up at least as often as most of us. But I know that when I am open and honest, when I praise solid work, when I have trusted them, my teams have responded very well.

So now that times are tough and money is tight, consider how to build team morale. Sometimes constraints are a blessing in disguise.

  — Steve