The secret to motivating people and maintaining their morale is to get them to think less about themselves and more about the group. Involve them in a cause, a crusade against a hated adversary. Make them see their survival as tied to the success of the army as a whole. In a group in which people have truly bonded, moods and emotions are so contagious that it becomes easy to infect your troops with enthusiasm. Lead from the front: let your soldiers see you in the trenches, making sacrifices for the cause. That will fill them with the desire to emulate and please you. Make both rewards and punishments rare but meaningful.
A motivated army can work wonders, making up for any lack of material resources.
THE ART OF MAN MANAGEMENT
We humans are selfish by nature. Our first thoughts in any situation revolve around our own interests: How will this affect me? How will it help me? At the same time, by necessity, we try to disguise our selfishness, making our motives look altruistic or disinterested. Our inveterate selfishness and our ability to disguise it are problems for you as a leader. You may think that the people working for you are genuinely enthusiastic and concerned, that is what they say, that is what their actions suggest. Then slowly you see signs that this person or that is using his or her position in the group to advance purely personal interests. One day you wake up to find yourself leading an army of selfish, conniving individuals.
That is when you start thinking about morale, about finding a way to motivate your troops and forge them into a group. Perhaps you try artfully to praise people, to offer them the possibility of reward, only to find you have spoiled them, strengthening their selfishness. Perhaps you try punishments and discipline, only to make them resentful and defensive. Perhaps you try to fire them up with speeches and group activities, but people are cynical nowadays; they will see right through you. The problem is not what you are doing but the fact that it comes late. You have begun to think about morale only after it has become an issue, not before. That is your mistake.
Learn from history's great motivators and military leaders: the way to get people to work together and maintain morale is to make them feel part of a group that is fighting for a worthy cause. That distracts them from their own interests and satisfies their human need to feel part of something bigger than they are. The more they think of the group, the less they think of themselves. They soon begin to link their own success to the group's; their own interests and the larger interests coincide. In this kind of army, people know that selfish behavior will disgrace them in the eyes of their companions. They become attuned to a kind of group conscience.
Morale is contagious
Put people in a cohesive, animated group and they naturally catch that spirit. If they rebel or revert to selfish behavior, they are easily isolated. You must establish this dynamic the minute you become the group's leader; it can only come from the top, that is, from you.
The ability to create the right group dynamic, to maintain the collective spirit, is known in military language as “man management.” History's great generals were all masters of the art, which for military men is more than simply important: in battle it can be the deciding issue, a matter of life and death. The moral is to the physical as three to one. Your troops' fighting spirit is crucial in the outcome of any conflict: with motivated soldiers you can beat an army three times the size of your own.
To create the best group dynamic and prevent destructive morale problems, follow these eight crucial steps:
Step 1: Unite your troops around a cause
Make your troops fight for an idea.
Now, more than ever, people have a hunger to believe in something. They feel an emptiness, which, left alone, they might try to fill with drugs or spiritual fads, but you can take advantage of it by channeling it into a cause you can convince them is worth fighting for. Bring people together around a cause and you create a motivated force. The cause can be anything you wish, but you should represent it as progressive: it fits the times, it is on the side of the future, so it is destined to succeed. If necessary, you can give it a veneer of spirituality. It is best to have some kind of adversary to hate, an adversary can help a group to define itself in opposition. Ignore this step and you are left with an army of mercenaries. You will deserve the fate that usually awaits such armies.
Step 2: Keep their bellies full
People cannot stay motivated if their material needs go unmet. If they feel exploited in any way, their natural selfishness will come to the surface and they will begin to peel off from the group. Use a cause, something abstract or spiritual, to bring them together, but meet their material needs. You do not have to spoil them by overpaying them; a paternalistic feeling that they are being taken care of, that you are thinking of their comfort, is more important. Attending to their physical needs will make it easier to ask more of them when the time comes.
Step 3: Lead from the front
The enthusiasm with which people join a cause inevitably wanes. One thing that speeds up its loss, and that produces discontent, is the feeling that the leaders do not practice what they preach. Right from the beginning, your troops must see you leading from the front, sharing their dangers and sacrifices, taking the cause as seriously as they do. Instead of trying to push them from behind, make them run to keep up with you.
Step 4: Concentrate their ch'i
There is a Chinese belief in an energy called ch'i, which dwells in all living things. All groups have their own level of ch'i, physical and psychological. A leader must understand this energy and know how to manipulate it.
Idleness has a terrible effect on ch'i. When troops are not working, their spirits lower. Doubts creep in, and selfish interests take over. Similarly, being on the defensive, always waiting and reacting to what the adversary dishes out, will also lower ch'i. So, keep your people busy, acting for a purpose, moving in a direction. Do not make them wait for the next attack; propelling them forward will excite them and make them hungry for battle. Aggressive action concentrates ch'i, and concentrated ch'i is full of latent force.
Step 5: Play to their emotions
The best way to motivate people is not through reason but through emotion. Humans, however, are naturally defensive, and if you begin with an appeal to their emotions, some histrionic harangue, they will see you as manipulative and will recoil. An emotional appeal needs a setup: lower their defenses, and make them bond as a group, by putting on a show, entertaining them, telling a story. Now they have less control over their emotions, and you can approach them more directly, moving them easily from laughter to anger or hatred. Masters of man management have a sense of drama: they know when and how to hit their soldiers in the gut.
Step 6: Mix harshness and kindness
The key to "man management" is a balance of punishment and reward. Too many rewards will spoil your troops and make them take you for granted; too much punishment will destroy their morale. You need to hit the right balance. Make your kindness rare and even an occasional warm comment or generous act will be powerfully meaningful. Anger and punishment should be equally rare; instead your harshness should take the form of setting very high standards that few can reach. Make your soldiers compete to please you. Make them struggle to see less harshness and more kindness.
Step 7: Build the group myth
The armies with the highest morale are armies that have been tested in battle. Soldiers who have fought alongside one another through many campaigns forge a kind of group myth based on their past victories. Living up to the tradition and reputation of the group becomes a matter of pride; anyone who lets it down feels ashamed. To generate this myth, you must lead your troops into as many campaigns as you can. It is wise to start out with easy battles that they can win, building up their confidence. Success alone will help bring the group together. Create symbols and slogans that fit the myth. Your soldiers will want to belong.
Step 8: Be ruthless with grumblers
Allow grumblers and the chronically disaffected any leeway at all and they will spread disquiet and even panic throughout the group. As fast as you can, you must isolate them and get rid of them. All groups contain a core of people who are more motivated and disciplined than the rest, your best soldiers. Recognize them, cultivate their goodwill, and set them up as examples. These people will serve as natural ballasts against those who are disaffected and panicky.
Above all else, then, pay attention to your staff, to those you recruit to your cause. Many will pretend to share your beliefs, but your first battle will show that all they wanted was a job. People like these are mercenaries and will get you nowhere. True believers are what you want; expertise and impressive resumes matter less than character and the capacity for sacrifice. Recruits of character will give you a staff already open to your influence, making morale and discipline infinitely easier to attain. This core personnel will spread the gospel for you, keeping the rest of the army in line. As far as possible in this secular world, make battle a religious experience, an ecstatic involvement in something transcending the present.
To command influence in the world, you need a power base, and here human beings, a devoted army of followers, are more valuable than money. They will do things for you that money cannot buy. That army is tricky to build. People are contradictory and defensive: push them too hard and they resent you; treat them well and they take you for granted. To avoid those traps, make your staff want your approval. To do that, you need to lead from the front. You need to work harder than any of your staff, so, your men seeing you doing it; failing to match you would feel guilty and selfish. A leader who works that hard stirs competitive instincts in his men, who do all they can to prove themselves worthier than their teammates.
By showing how much of your own time and effort you are willing to sacrifice, you earn the respect of your troops. Once you have that respect, criticism, even when harsh, becomes an effective motivator, making your followers feel they are disappointing you. At the same time, some kind act out of the blue would break down any ability to resist you.
Morale is contagious, and you, as leader, set the tone. Ask for sacrifices you will not make yourself and your troops grow lethargic and resentful; act too nice, show too much concern for their well-being, and you drain the tension from their souls and create spoiled children who whine at the slightest pressure or request for more work.
Personal example is the best way to set the proper tone and build morale. When your people see your devotion to the cause, they ingest your spirit of energy and self-sacrifice. A few timely criticisms here and there and they will only try harder to please you, to live up to your high standards. Instead of having to push and pull your troops, you will find them chasing after you.
Aim indirectly at people's emotions: get them to laugh or cry over something that seems unrelated to you or to the issue at hand. Emotions are contagious, they bring people together and make them bond. Then you can play them like a piano, moving them from one emotion to the other. Oratory and eloquent pleas only irritate and insult us; we see right through them. Motivation is subtler than that. By advancing indirectly, setting up your emotional appeal, you will get inside instead of just scratching the surface.
A group has a collective personality that hardens over time, and sometimes that personality is dysfunctional or adolescent. Changing it is difficult; people prefer what they know, even if it does not work. If you lead this kind of group, do not play into its negative dynamic. Announcing intentions and making demands will leave people defensive and feeling like children. Ask more of them. Expect them to work like adults. Quietly alter the spirit with which things are done. Emphasize efficiency: anybody can be efficient, it isn't a question of talent, efficiency breeds success, and success raises morale. Once the spirit and personality of the group start to shift, everything else will fall into place.
Learn from the masters: the way to manage people is to keep them in suspense. First create a bond between your soldiers and yourself. They respect you, admire you, even fear you a little. To make the bond stronger, hold yourself back, create a little space around yourself; you are warm yet with a touch of distance. Once the bond is forged, appear less often. Make both your punishments and your praises rare and unexpected, whether for mistakes or for successes that may seem minor at the time but have symbolic meaning. Once people know what pleases you and what angers you, they turn into trained poodles, working to charm you with apparent good behavior. Keep them in suspense: make them think of you constantly and want to please you but never know just how to do it. Once they are in the trap, you will have a magnetic pull over them. Motivation will become automatic.
If morale is contagious, so is its opposite: fear and discontent can spread through your troops like wildfire. The only way to deal with them is to cut them off before they turn into panic and rebellion. In such cases you must turn back the tide of panic. Waste no time, and deal with the whole group. People who spread panic or mutiny experience a kind of madness in which they gradually lose contact with reality. Appeal to their pride and dignity, make them feel ashamed of their moment of weakness and madness. Remind them of what they have accomplished in the past and show them how they are falling short of the ideal. This social shaming will wake them up and reverse the dynamic.
J. Michael Dennis
Corporate Systemic Strategist