Culture and morale—like disinterested and uninterested, jealousy and envy, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus—are often mistaken for each other. But both in terms of literal definition and operational practice, they are best described by their differences rather than their similarities.
Using the fewest words possible, culture is the collective personality and attitudes of the people in your company. Are they honest or dishonest? Selfish or selfless? Risk-taking or risk-averse? Collaborative or cutthroat? Innovative or complacent?
And using even fewer words, morale is the collective mood of the people working there. Are they happy or miserable? Engaged or disengaged? Homicidal or suicidal?
Wait, those aren’t opposites.
Anyway, the point is there are two points: 1) Culture and morale are not the same; and, 2) You and your company must focus on both to optimize results. Full f’ing stop.
And how do you do that?
To paraphrase that famous quote from Aristotle, who was speaking 2,000 years ago and was speaking on the subject of individual improvement, your company’s culture is what it repeatedly does; therefore, “It’s not an act, but a habit.”
Repeatedly celebrate ideation and risk-taking, and you will get more of it. Repeatedly punish failure and you will get less of it… in large part because you will get less ideation and risk-taking. Repeatedly indifferent about both and you never know what you’re going to get.
Which is the worst outcome of all: fostering a culture that’s like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.
The good news is you, as leaders, control this. The bad news is that you actively have to do it, and it’s not all rah-rah and sis-boom-bah. Sure, being a cheerleader is great—especially for morale, which we will get to later—but cultivating culture is more like tending a garden: you plant, you water, you till, you nurture, but sometimes, you have to roll up your sleeves and rip out the weeds.
Roots and all.
Because much of culture is addition by subtraction. Bill Parcells knew this. Whenever he took over a new football team, he would immediately identify the culture killers and then… counsel them? Rehabilitate them? Give them a stern talking to? No, he would just toss them off the roster. Jack Welsh from General Electric knew this, and he came up with rank ‘em and yank ‘em. There’s a CEO in our industry that knows this, and coined this metaphor: “Sometimes you gotta take out the trash.”
Now, this may seem cruel. Because it is, especially if you’re the one being hauled to the curb. And no, no executive likes whacking people—OK, maybe one or two do—but if you want to be a leader, it’s part of the job. You’re not doing it because you’re a sadist; rather, you’re doing it because you’re a protector, a protector of the most powerful yet most fragile element of your company.
Morale Of The Story
Everyone rambles on about culture, but when was the last time you heard even a whisper about morale?
But that doesn’t mean companies don’t believe in it or value it. Au contraire, mon frere. Ironically, you could argue that in fact, most of the initiatives companies use to boost culture actually have the result of strengthening morale.
And that’s a good thing.
Casual Fridays? Morale. Bring your dog to work day? Morale. Parking-lot BBQ to celebrate the end of the quarter? Morale. Pizza with the president? Morale. Holiday party with a karaoke machine and beer pong and all-you-can-drink margaritas and complimentary Ubers at the end of the night?
Morale… and hey, that sounds like fun.
As leaders, you can improve morale just by walking around and talking to people in your organization. Think back before you were a big shot, and how great it felt when the boss stopped by your cubicle for a chinwag. Be approachable, be friendly, be inquisitive. Ask questions and listen to the answers. Don’t hide in your office like Scrooge McDuck. Mix and mingle with the team.
But morale is not all about having a good time. It’s also making everyone understand his or her importance to the success of the company. You matter and your job matters.
Late one night in 1961, John F. Kennedy was visiting NASA headquarters and walked up to a man mopping the floor. “Why are you working so late?” Kennedy asked. “Mr. President,” he responded. “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
Is that cool or what?
When you make your employees feel appreciated and respected, and make them buy into their role in your vision, that’s exactly where it will take your company’s morale…
To the moon.