Shining A Positive Light

When staff members seem gloomy, you need to take a leadership role in boosting morale. Here are some ideas to get you started.

By Dr. Elizabeth Alden

Elizabeth “Betsy” Alden, PhD, is President of Alden & Associates: Collegiate Athletics Consulting, based in Amherst, Mass. Dr. Alden has served as Director of Athletics at Ithaca College, San Francisco State University, Webster University, and the College of Notre Dame (Md.). She can be reached at:

Athletic Management, 12.6, Oct/Nov 2000,

Susan’s tenure as director of athletics was going on five years. Hired to turn around a struggling program, she was proud of the fact that many teams were suddenly achieving new heights. The five-year mark was a milestone for her, as she had worked diligently to improve every facet of the program. So why did she sense a feeling of melancholy and low morale among her staff?
Staff morale is a tough nut to crack for many administrators. We are hired to perform so many concrete duties in the course of our day that dealing with the morale of our staff can seem superfluous and tangential. Oftentimes, both determining the morale level and making necessary changes can easily become “back burner” issues—things to get to another day.
However, if you don’t pay attention to staff morale, there can be serious consequences. A period of low morale can lead to more mistakes, less productivity, and increased employee turnover. In addition, if not heeded, minor grumblings from staff members can spiral into dissension and major problems.
It may never become a favorite part of your job, but dealing with your employees’ morale cannot be ignored. In this column, I will discuss how to examine your current practices in this area and give specific tips on boosting staff spirit.

Understanding Morale
First, to get us all on the same page, let us define staff morale as the states of mind that employees have regarding their worklife. Good staff morale can be summed up in three points: there is a commitment and loyalty to the department and institution; each staff person feels generally satisfied with his or her work; there is a sense of common purpose among staff.
To begin examining the topic, let’s look at two questions:
1. Should your staff’s morale be important to you as the supervisor of the program? Absolutely. As difficult and frustrating as personnel issues can be for an administrator, they also are perhaps the most important things you handle in your daily work. Managing people in today’s world means taking a sincere interest in them both as employees and as human beings.
Knowing, within reason and limits, what is going on in their worlds can help you understand their productivity and energy levels. Also, by you showing a personal interest in what is happening in their work lives on a daily basis, their loyalty increases.
2. How important is your own workplace morale to general staff morale? It is very important. How positive and vital you feel toward your work will certainly trickle down to your staff.
As a middle manager, you may not always receive the recognition you deserve. I vividly remember watching an NCAA Division I-A athletic director give his staff a wonderful pep talk at the end of a successful year. At the conclusion of his talk the entire staff walked out, and he was left standing there. No one on the staff thought to commend him on a job well done.
For many administrators, a pat on the back from a supervisor is rare. Consider yourself lucky if the principal, president, or vice president of your institution takes the time to recognize your efforts. It takes a strong and caring administrator to move beyond this problem and decide that, despite being poorly managed from above, he or she is going to care about the morale of his or her own staff. Most athletic directors must learn to give both their staff and themselves that important pat on the back.

Assessing Individuals
Dealing with staff morale begins with analyzing staff morale. Let us take Susan’s department as an example. Every staff member in Susan’s program brings a distinct personality to his or her work. Some of the staff members are highly motivated, while some are not. Certain people work well with a supervisor while others chafe under close supervision. In other words, the complexities of this group are exhibited in a continuum of behaviors. Each person offers different personality traits that impact overall staff morale.
This knowledge can be critically important as you begin to gauge staff morale. By knowing each staff member’s personal nuances, you are better able to assess what is a personality trait and what is low morale. For example, if a staff member who is usually optimistic and works well in a group structure starts behaving divisive during staff meetings, you can assume that low morale may be present.
The key point is that you are dealing with individuals who make up a group, and you must know each employee as an individual to interpret his or her morale. You must also know your employees personally to understand how to boost their morale.

Chins Up
There are clear and concise ways to boost staff morale. The first step is acknowledging that this is a job-related task that requires both your time and spirit. It cannot be pushed to the back burner because other work got in the way. It must be the basis for all decisions you make for and about your program.
“21 Ways to Boost Employee Morale” by Bill Roche offers a checklist approach to improving employee morale. I have taken the list and broken it down into two sections: basic morale-related suggestions and “icing on the cake” suggestions. The basic suggestions are what you need to focus on to establish a foundation of positive morale. They are:
• Seek out concerns
• Establish clear goals
• Give clear instructions
• Talk with employees regularly
• Avoid role confusion
• Provide good working conditions
• Monitor workloads
• Tell the truth
• Reduce crazy stress
• Be fair when terminating employees
• Say “thank you”
These suggestions focus on treating your staff with dignity and respect. They also focus on people—remember that lurking inside that soccer coach is a human being with concerns, issues, hopes, fears, and dreams.
As a suggestion for enacting the last tip (say “thank you”), Roche recommends putting 10 pennies in your left pocket every morning. Your assignment is to move one penny from the left to the right pocket every time you thank someone or give a pat on the back for a job well done. By the end of each workday your right pocket should have 10 pennies in it.
Sounds easy enough! But, can you do it? Is patting someone on the back a part of your management style? If it is not, remember how good it feels whenever you receive praise from someone.
The “icing on the cake” suggestions are as follows:
• Build successful teams
• Get employees involved
• Give credit where it is due
• Help employees shine
• Help with career development
• Keep jobs vibrant
• Pay for memberships in professional associations
• Plan an office retreat
• Provide professional training
These suggestions are just as critical as the basic suggestions. The only difference is they can come later in your endeavors to develop staff morale.

Putting it Together
Not all of the previous suggestions will work with each employee. This is why knowing each employee and assessing their morale is important—so you can determine what is best to share with each one.
I want to end this article by stressing the importance of your own morale in this journey. You must be clear about your own work-related morale before you can begin to focus on others. This is not to say that you must be 100 percent chipper each day—morale goes much deeper than that. But you must feel that the above-listed suggestions are attainable for you and your staff before you can expect your department to reach them.