Morale, motivation and momentum: three mysterious concepts

February 13, 2012

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.