“Nothing will kill a great employee faster than watching you tolerate a bad one” — Perry Belcher


As we neared the end of our year-long deployment, we recognized that the weeks ahead were going to be some of the toughest we’d faced. Not only were we still engaged with a growing insurgency, we needed everyone focused and ready to work as we prepared to transition “out of the fight.” About 75 days before we were schedule to be relieved by another unit, I was eating breakfast with the commander when he shared an idea: What if we were to redeploy some people early to bolster the rear detachment for our return?

As ideas go, it wasn’t the worst one I’d ever heard. But there was more. This group would be made up of soldiers who’d been disciplined, who had experienced behavioral issues, or who just simply didn’t want to work. As an added benefit, we’d get them home before the holidays, so they’d be rested and ready to work. On second thought, it was one of the worst ideas I’d ever heard. I explained the potential pitfalls of such a plan: rear detachment wasn’t exactly equipped to manage the challenges this group would present, it would leave us short-handed for redeployment, and—the real kicker—morale would plummet for those left behind. This would be perceived as a reward for poor behavior or performance.

But his mind was made up. Against the objections of the rest of the leadership team, we proceeded with his plan and the resulting fiasco unfolded pretty much as we had predicted. Not only were we left short-handed for our transfer of authority and redeployment, morale bottomed out. The troops remaining behind didn’t understand and, to be honest, the logic was impossible to explain. “You sent them home for Christmas because they weren’t going to do any work, anyway? With all due respect, sir, that’s bullshit.” And it was.

Organizational Culture Depicts Underlying Morale

Leadership guru John Maxwell once said, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” This is the fate of morale. Strong morale is absolutely essential to an organization’s lasting success. While transitory success is possible without high morale, any measure of enduring success depends on a leader’s ability to build and sustain morale. Leaders who cannot or will not build morale ultimately fail their organizations, if not themselves.

Morale also underpins the culture of an organization. A team with high morale will exude a winning attitude, and that kind of confidence breeds success. Take that away, and as confidence breaks down, so does the culture. An organization with low morale will eventually slip into a culture that engenders negativity and an attitude that fosters failure. Bad things happen when morale drops.

5 Ways Leaders Kill Morale

As leaders, we’re taught that a number of factors contribute to high morale—empowering subordinates, extending recognition, listening to and accepting input, sharing information, treating everyone with respect, and providing a strong example for others to follow. Each of these—and many more—offers insight into how to build the type of strong morale that fosters a winning culture.

But then there’s the things we do to kill morale. These can be just as insightful, provided we are self-aware enough to recognize them and take the time to reflect on their potential impact. In some cases, they are the polar opposites of those mentioned above. But just as often they are something else altogether, actions that we might not stop to consider in the moment.

1. Rewarding the wrong people.

If you want to put morale into a death spiral, this is a good place to start. Every organization has an underperformer who is eventually recognized and rewarded for meeting the minimum standard. While this might achieve some short-term benefits at the individual level, collectively it strangles morale. Even the perception that the wrong people are being rewarded—as in the example above—will have a negative impact on morale.

2. Not enforcing standards.

In a 2013 message to the Australian Army concerning sexism in the ranks, Lt. Gen. David Morrison delivered an especially memorable quote: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” It’s not enough for a leader to meet the standards of an organization, they have to uphold those standards—all of the time, and not just when it suits them. If they don’t, then those standards are meaningless.

3. Overworking people.

Talented people will naturally take on increased workloads, but morale will suffer if they don’t feel appreciated or if the workload just continues to increase. Employee burnout is a fast track to killing morale. Nothing burns out good people quite like being routinely overworked, except maybe being overworked without any recognition whatsoever, both of which seem to go hand-in-hand under poor leadership.

4. Playing favorites.

Any leader will have their favored workhorses; that’s just a natural outgrowth of reliable talent. But everyone must be treated fairly and equally. They must all be evaluated on their performance, not how much you like them. Few things impact morale in as devastating a manner as a leader who plays favorites. When a perception exists that someone is benefitting from a personal relationship with a leader, it generates resentment and mistrust, sure morale killers in the workplace.

5. Micromanaging.

There is probably no easier or faster way to kill team morale than through micromanagement. Micromanagers signal three things through their actions—they don’t trust you to do the job, they don’t think you’re competent, and they don’t believe you can do the job better than them. All of those may be true on some level, but that shouldn’t keep a good leader from delegating and providing guidance. Talented employees grow through that process; if it doesn’t exist, they will eventually leave and you’ll be left with a team that’s poorer as a result.

Morale is Key to Organizational Success

Morale is transitory. Put it on the right track, and it will grow stronger by the day. Sidetrack it, and you can put it on a spiral from which it won’t recover. Ultimately, morale is one of a leader’s most important responsibilities, and the key to lasting success for any team.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.