Blue Line


January 5, 2015  By Chris D. Lewis

– General George Catlett Marshall.

Morale is difficult to define, but it’s quickly apparent when it falters. It’s a positive confident feeling, an energy, an enthusiasm, a spirit or a committed and united will to succeed.

{The impact of poor employee morale}

Although I speak mainly from the police leadership perspective, you’ll quickly see that this premise applies to public and private sector organizations and the not-for-profit world. The issue is not isolated to policing, but often becomes more newsworthy when it is.


If you think back on your own career, I’m sure your feelings about yourself, the job and your organization varied. Most of us have had weeks, months or even years where we considered changing employers or starting an entirely new career. Everyone has peaks and valleys in their working and personal lives.

Unfortunately for some, personal life challenges can’t help but impact careers and vice-versa. That will always be a reality until we start hiring robots instead of human beings. Even more concerning is when an individual doesn’t have a good work life to escape to when home life isn’t stable. Or conversely, a solid personal life for positive balance when the career isn’t what it should be.

When one’s personal life and job are both at extreme lows, times can be really tough.

That aside, when we have been in that work life “valley”, so to speak, did our supervisors inspire us? Did they give us the confidence and support to be the best that we could be? Really care what motivated us as individuals, or what our strengths and weaknesses were? Do and say the right things and provide us with the right mentoring and encouragement to be successful? Likely not.

It’s more probable that they provided little or none of that and in some cases were guilty of deliberately trying to make the lives of some people a living hell. They may well have been the sole cause of the valley.

In addition to the negative impacts that low morale can have on the day-to-day performance and professionalism of employees – i.e. attitude, client and colleague interactions and motivation – further challenges can arise when leaders aren’t properly engaged.

{The impact of poor morale on professionalism and productivity}

Closely examine any major North American policing scandal and you will find a leadership failing at some point in the chain of events. Generally not at the chief or commissioner level, but somewhere along the timeline a supervisor or manager dropped the ball, deliberately or because they just weren’t taking obvious issues head-on or doing what they were paid to do. I’m sure that applies equally to government and private sector organizations.

Not that poor leadership will turn a subordinate police officer into a thug, or make them shake-down drug dealers or commit murders for the mob, but usually when things become public, officers say, “I knew something was going on”, or “it doesn’t surprise me knowing those guys”.

Why didn’t sergeants, staff sergeants, inspectors or lieutenants and captains see it coming and take proper action when allegations of impropriety surfaced or when they knew certain officers were living well above their means? When they saw that some officers seldom left the office and rarely laid a charge because they spent 10 hours a shift surfing inappropriate sites on the Internet? Where were supervisors and managers when the paperwork didn’t match the expenditures or when officers couldn’t account for their time?

I’m not suggesting willful blindness here, although at times that has been the case. Officers involved in some of the better known scandals were NCOs or higher. We’ve all been guilty of trusting some subordinates more than we should – but most often, when these calamities arise and cause an organization no end of embarrassment, some supervisors or managers, “leaders” in organizations, neglected to do something that could have mitigated or totally prevented the public shame.

We have all done things in our careers that may not have been at the high professional standard at which we usually function. It may have been being rude to a member of the public, bad-mouthing a co-worker or not being totally honest with a superior. Hopefully it was an isolated instance, or perhaps several isolated situations over a long career. Most often when these behaviours occurred, it likely related to our mood or attitude of the day and I would suggest that it was often influenced by some external factor.

We are all human beings, as are those we lead, and as such we have emotions that will often impact what we say and do. At times this impact is negative.

At any given time in any organization, there are many people hurting in their personal lives. Financial difficulties, marital problems, personal or family health challenges, aging parents, substance abuse issues, and sadly, much more. Dealing with these problems, perhaps even a number at once, will undoubtedly affect our work-life demeanor – including our professionalism and productivity in some way. You can’t always walk into work, turn all of those other pressures off and put on a smiley-face.

What happens when an employee dealing with one of more of those troubling matters, or perhaps simply physically tired or fighting a cold or flu bug, goes to work and has to deal with a supervisor that has no personality? A person who doesn’t care about anyone but him/herself, treats people like crap, doesn’t set realistic expectations, never listens to the thoughts or suggestions of the members being supervised, yadda, yadda? It’s tough to impossible for the vast majority of people to then smile and go about their business with gusto.

Quite often, life could be totally wonderful at home: financially stable and completely healthy and happy. Yet we would still react negatively to a supervisor void of personality and therefore without any discernible leadership skills. We would likely still not be totally productive and consummate professionals at work. Throw in the off-duty challenges of life that we all face at times and you may have a train wreck in the making.

Survey 1,000 employees (including police). Guarantee anonymity. Ask them to detail something completely inappropriate and unprofessional they did on-duty in their career. Then ask them to describe the supervisor they had and what was going on in their personal life at the time. I am confident that it would quickly become abundantly clear that leadership would be the common denominator.

The authors of the CACP study, “Professionalism in Policing Research Project”, stated:

<Generally, management practices had the most significant impact on integrity and commitment, followed by work environment variables and finally agency programs. Across all three – management practices, work environment variables and agency programs – the variables that had the largest impact on integrity were supportive supervision and perceived organizational support.>

In the policing context, I believe that the public’s trust in its police force can be significantly impacted by the conduct (professionalism) of its members. Similarly, public confidence can be shattered in an ineffective police service. The same concept would most often apply to client bases in the private sector upon seeing or hearing of scandals involving the professionalism of company personnel.

So, bearing that in mind and accepting the premise that morale can make or break an organization; if the quality of leadership directly impacts the level of employee morale, professionalism and productivity, does it not stand to reason that “leadership” can cause an organization to succeed or fail?

In her article, “The Leading Edge”, author Nicole Fink describes the potential impacts morale can have on workers as follows:

Leaders must do all they reasonably can to keep employee morale high. It is paramount that they lead effectively. They must communicate, connect and inspire, because the people they lead and the people they serve deserve nothing but the best.

**With excerpts from “Never Stop on a Hill” by Chris D. Lewis (unpublished as of January 2015).

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