Morale, motivation and momentum: three mysterious concepts

Motivation remains a much used term in organizational life. Much the same might be said of morale, a term generally applied in a military context, and momentum, particularly found in sports commentaries

Recent press reports have discussed the old military concept of morale among serving troops. Discussion has focused around whether entertainment can have a positive and relatively long-lasting effect on well-being of the recipients.

Research results

A research report from the department of psychiatry of Kings College London attempts to demystify the phenomenon. The following summarises the college press bulletin of Feb 12th 2012.

The report takes a historical look at the impact of entertainment on troop morale, from World War I to the conflict in Afghanistan today. Its author notes that

‘No single factor can be guaranteed to raise morale, but those that do, will undoubtedly have some effect on mental well-being. Whilst entertainment cannot, and does not, provide absolute protection against the psychological problems associated with war, it does have a role to play in protecting service personnel against mental health problems.’

The report suggests a clear association between falling morale and rising mental health problems. Many factors are indicative of poor morale, such as desertion, absenteeism, disciplinary offences and sickness. Factors that are believed to raise or sustain morale are confidence in commanders, unit cohesion, belief in the task and the fair provision of rest and recreation.

Mark Cann, director of the sponsors of the report concurs:

‘Sending the biggest names in entertainment, free, to the frontline as volunteers with the support of the British public has a proven effect on morale, so long as it is carried out in the right way. We at the British Forces Foundation hope the findings might encourage a review of how military entertainment is conducted in future so that our work may be as effective as possible.’

The BBC added to the story drawing on historical and contemporary examples, and quotes from two military leaders

Despite a lack of research into the value of the entertainment provided to servicemen during WWI, [World War 1] it is hard to imagine it could have been anything other than a major morale-boost during such a terrible conflict.

“Morale is a state of mind. It is that intangible force which will move a whole group of men to give their last ounce to achieve something, without counting the cost to themselves; that makes them feel that they are part of something greater than themselves.” (Field Marshal Slim, 1956)

“Without high morale, no success can be achieved, however good may be the strategic or tactical plan, or anything else.” (Field Marshal Montgomery, 1950)

What the textbooks don’t say

Even the standard textbooks on leadership are quiet on the nature of morale, and those other M-words motivation and momentum, although there are firms offering advice and courses for dealing with the issues. My concern is that the advice I found seems firmly grounded within current Anglo-Saxon interests in feel-good factors and positive psychology and as suggested in the King’s college report, more evidence-based studies may be needed. It would be good to test variations across other cultures.

5 Responses to Morale, motivation and momentum: three mysterious concepts

  1. Annabelle Mark says:

    There is the formal moral boost of entertainment and the informal of the joker in the pack see good examples in MASH One is engineered and one is engendered.
    I wonder how the feel good factor of the bonus culture for bankers fits here too

  2. Paul Hinks says:

    Hi Annabelle –

    Nice example – I’m also thinking about footballers who are referenced as the ‘jokers’ in the team – these guys can help create great team morale.

    For example, Paul Gascoigne was noted for his pranks in the changing room (and also on/off the pitch) – in his playing days he would have helped to create a happy dressing room. (apologies if you’re not a football fan!)

    Your point about the bonus culture in banking is interesting – I have mixed views here. I believe it’s correct to recognise & reward performance – even if the remuneration figures associated with banking are difficult for us mortals to relate to! What I find difficult to rationalise are high bonus payments for apparent failure.

    The collapsed banking system clearly demonstrated a lack of effective governance which resulted in very high bonus payments for some!

    Perhaps pressure on the bonus culture within the banking industry is having a negative influence on morale (?) maybe there will be a subsequent hit on the performance of banks as a result?

  3. Annabelle Mark says:

    Interesting – I think there is a relationship between what we give as morale boosters and motivators and the activity involved, entertainment for troops in the context of war/death and the boredom in between; money for bankers,etc but in health care would it be well patients? Exploring this may prove fruitful.

  4. Thanks Annabelle,

    and it’s getting on the political agenda with ‘big society’ and corporate well-being thinking.

    best wishes

  5. My own two cents:

    Morale comes from dignity and certainty, motivation comes from convincing and original vision, and momentum is fueled by both.

    If subordinates are bothered by threats of humiliation, incessant micro stress, fickle leadership, lack of recreation/provisions or fear for their future (i.e. no pension…), they will break under doubt and stress.
    Off course everyone has different talents and fears, a good leader will give the proper post to the most well inclined person.

    If there is no great and honest vision for everyone to proudly work towards, then hedonism, yolo attitudes, suspiciousness and idleness will set in. If people are both idle and anxious, they will have no momentum.

    On the other hand, if people have a vision to pull them and the tools and fuel to continue, they will be motivated.

    Morale is the car and fuel, motivation is a good destination, momentum is the will to act propped up by morale and motivation.
    Just like having a car, safe and paved road and fuel and a nice destination will allow you to want to take a long trip.

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