Maintaining good morale isn’t rocket science to real leaders. But as there are so few in leadership who seem to understand it, you’d think it required a Ph.D. in Astrophysics. It makes you wonder what some of these clowns were taught in college or leadership schools.
Some of us have spent decades in the military and we have worked under those who got it, and those who were just looking out for themselves, or clueless. So, I’m going to make this easy and boil it down to a simple list of things that negatively impact morale. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide how to implement corrective actions. But be warned, I may shoot down some of your favorite fixes. In fact, let’s just do that right now.
Things That Don’t Fix Bad Morale
- A meal with the boss.
- Pizza parties and catered meals.
- Bouncy Castles (yes one USAF base did this with good intentions but was widely ridiculed.)
- Morale shirt/patch Friday
- Family Days
- Visits from VIPs.
- Challenge Coins and awards handed out like candy.
- Getting a Squadron group picture made where everyone forms up to spell out the unit numbers.
- Elephant Walks.
- Senior leadership serving the holiday meal.
- Motivational speeches by leadership or guest speakers.
- Climate surveys.
- Corporate team building exercises.
- A day off without having to take official Leave.
- Any sort of required physical exercise – like a Fun Run.
- Required group volunteer work or parties.
I suppose I could go on, but you get the drift. Don’t like what I said? Sometimes the truth hurts. All the above are items that literally thousands of people have expressed over the years. And if your Climate Surveys don’t support that, then all I have to say is that you wasted millions of dollars on Climate Surveys.
Factors Detrimental to Military Morale
Poor Leadership: Incompetent or abusive superiors erode trust and respect among subordinates. Careerism and playing politics lead to a loss of confidence and demotivation. Troops will lose all respect for you and make fun of you behind your back.
False promises: Making promises you can’t keep or exaggerating the benefits of a program/order creates disappointment and erodes trust among the troops. They will see you as having, “Drank the Kool-Aid.”
Excessive Bureaucracy: Lengthy and overly detailed administrative processes demoralize personnel. Tedious paperwork and red tape discourage members from focusing on their primary duties. It’s particularly bad when they have to do an administrative job that belongs to someone else.
Inadequate Training and Equipment: Insufficient training and outdated or broken equipment lead to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability. The lack of resources undermines confidence in the units’ ability to accomplish their missions. Most people inherently want to do a good job, but roadblocks are frustrating.
Disregarding safety protocols: Ignoring safety measures and taking unnecessary risks with lives creates fear and distrust within the unit. The members realize that the leaders don’t have their best interests at heart and will just see themselves as expendable resource.
Long Deployments and Frequent Tours of Duty: Prolonged separations from family and loved ones cause emotional stress and fatigue. Frequent deployments lead to burnout and decreased enthusiasm for service. Especially when those deployments don’t serve a real-world military tasking like a war. Too many deployments are just for training and PR and the justification for the trip is often weak.
Uncertainty About Future Deployments: Not knowing when or where the next deployment will occur creates anxiety and apprehension, especially for family members. Uncertainty can also disrupt long-term planning and career development.
Inadequate Support Services: Insufficient mental health resources and limited access to counseling can lead to untreated mental health issues. Neglecting mental health concerns or promoting a “suck it up” mentality harms morale and leads to long-term negative effects on the well-being of the troops.
Inequitable Treatment: Favoritism and unequal treatment within the ranks fosters resentment and divisiveness. Perceptions of unfair promotions or rewards diminish morale and people eventually develop an, “I don’t care anymore” attitude. This leads to minimum effort and eventually passive-aggressive sabotage.
Inadequate Recognition and Appreciation: Lack of acknowledgment for sacrifices and achievements leads to a sense of unappreciated service. Failure to recognize individual contributions often reduces motivation to excel.
Inappropriate or Unearned Rewards: This ties in with the item above because it’s easy to take recognition to the other extreme. Awards and recognition which are handed out like candy lose their value. If it continues too long, then the people who are exemplary performers will become resentful and demotivated. I call this, “Award Dilution.”
Lack of Work-Life Balance: Excessive work demands without sufficient downtime cause fatigue, reduced performance, and poor morale. It’s especially critical when that excessive workload is occurring during peacetime. Air Force aircraft mechanics sarcastically joke that they work a wartime schedule, even when we aren’t at war. There is much truth in what they say.
Ineffectual Communication: Poor communication between leadership and troops leads to misunderstandings and misaligned expectations. Lack of transparency breeds distrust and frustration. And, as a rule, when the lack of communication is the fault of leadership, they rarely take public ownership of the error. The funny thing about this is that everyone else knows it was a leadership gaffe and they lose credibility as leaders when they don’t fess up.
Punishing constructive criticism: Discouraging personnel from expressing their concerns or suggestions for improvement stifles innovation and engagement. If unchecked, this will eventually cause passive-aggressive sabotage. What this means is that subordinates will see something wrong or an error that’s about to be made, but they say nothing.
Inconsistent Disciplinary Measures: Inconsistent punishment for misconduct always creates a perception of unfairness within the organization. Lack of accountability harms unit cohesion and discipline. A great example of this is when General Officers are convicted of a crime and they get one reduction in rank and are allowed to retire, while a more junior person gets prison time and a dishonorable discharge. Yes, that’s an extreme example but we have all seen similar examples of inconsistent discipline.
Lack of Career Advancement Opportunities: A stagnant career path with limited opportunities for advancement causes dissatisfaction and apathy, especially when other less deserving or less qualified people are given those advancement opportunities. It is particularly demoralizing when people are chosen based on gender, ethnicity, favoritism, or because they played politics better.
Political Interference and Lack of Support: Interference from political leaders undermines trust in the chain of command when they don’t stand up for the troops. This causes feelings of neglect and abandonment.
Long Hours, Continuous Operations, Overwork: Working extended hours without sufficient rest leads to physical and mental exhaustion. Continuous operations without breaks create fatigue, mistakes, propensity for injury, and possible death. The troops are very aware of these hazards and resent it when leadership isn’t looking out for them.
Absence of a Sense of Purpose: Lack of clarity about the mission’s importance can make someone question the value of their contributions. A strong sense of purpose is essential to boost morale and commitment. It’s common that the mission is seen by the troops as primarily being a career enhancer for some senior leader. Nobody wants to die so that someone can get promoted.
Unaddressed Ethical Dilemmas: Being asked to engage in actions contrary to personal beliefs or military regulations can create moral distress and decrease morale. Ethical considerations must be addressed to maintain the moral compass of military personnel.
Lack of Input in Decision-Making: A lack of involvement in decision-making processes often leads to feelings of powerlessness and disengagement. Engaging people in shaping policies and strategies can enhance morale and ownership. Sometimes all that’s required is to ask people for their input and then act on some of them.
Unresolved Conflicts and Tensions: Unaddressed conflicts within the ranks harm unit cohesion and trust. Encouraging open communication and conflict resolution is vital for maintaining morale.
Poor Living Conditions: Inadequate housing and facilities negatively impact the well-being and morale of military personnel. Investing in better living conditions boosts morale and retention. This issue is currently on the radar of Capitol Hill because the military seems to be unable to address the issues. Nobody wants to deploy and leave their family in housing with inoperable plumbing, leaks, and black mold. I guarantee you that the Generals Quarters don’t have any of these issues. What does that tell you? This one just absolutely makes me livid because the problems only started when the DoD privatized base housing. You claim you can fight and win a war, but you can’t fix the housing issues for our troops?!?! Resign or retire because you are a failure at your job!
I’ve laid out the major items that cause poor morale and proven that it’s not rocket science. It seems to me that all you senior leaders with degrees, graduates of the service academies, and graduates of them there high falutin’ war colleges should be able to figure out how to fix things. I mean, if a dumb old, uneducated, enlisted puke, knuckle-dragging Crew Chief like me can, certainly you can. Right? It’s your call. I just fix and fuel the jet – you gotta fly it.
Dave Chamberlin served 38 years in the USAF and Air National Guard as an aircraft crew chief, where he retired as a CMSgt. He has held a wide variety of technical, instructor, consultant, and leadership positions in his more than 40 years of civilian and military aviation experience. Dave holds an FAA Airframe and Powerplant license from the FAA, as well as a Master’s degree in Aeronautical Science. He currently runs his own consulting and training company and has written for numerous trade publications.
His true passion is exploring and writing about issues facing the military, and in particular, aircraft maintenance personnel.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.