Moral(e)

Originally published on an earlier blog Net E-Learning in July 2015

Do you enjoy typos that subtly, or not so subtly change sentence meanings? Sometimes not even typos, but very similar words, where the wrong one has been selected unknowingly, or maybe subconsciously? One of my favourites is ‘morale’ and ‘moral’. I’ve been musing about writing a blog on this for a while, and although what follows is not quite as articulate as I would like, we have yet again in the media, examples of prominent people whose morals allegedly leave much to be desired. I also read this week that banking leaders are about to be audited on their ethics… So here is my case for the close link between morals and morale.

I think they have a very close relationship, so as someone with an interest in the roots, usage of and inherent meanings of words, but who did not study Latin, I looked up both words, expecting to find the same root, but I didn’t. 

‘Moral’ is from Middle English from Latin (moralis) and has been in use from the 14th Century, and relates to the principle of right and wrong, proper conduct and standards of behaviour.

‘Morale’ is from the French word ‘moral’, which in its feminine form is ‘morale’ and has been used from the mid 18th Century. It relates to the confidence, enthusiasm and discipline of a person but more often a group (unit cohesion) at a particular time. Wikipedia gives examples of its military use - ‘Esprit de Corps’, and in the workplace – job satisfaction and feelings of well being.

Taking 4 aspects of the meaning of ‘morale’ one by one, in the workplace context:

Confidence – What gives us the confidence to achieve and perform in the workplace? The skills, resources and support to do what is required? The right amount of direction balanced with discretion to make our own decisions? Belief and confidence in what we are there to do - what our organisation is there to deliver? All of this, I think, but I wonder if without an explicit moral or ethical dimension (a set of expected values), confidence could be lost, misplaced or misaligned.

Enthusiasm – Quite easy to define; being keen, believing in the organisation’s goals, and wanting to do your bit. Assuming basic needs are met though, don’t most people need  a strong belief in and a close fit with the organisation’s values to maintain this enthusiasm day in, day out? Where does that belief come from? I would say from what is visible about the leadership and day to day symbols of the organisational culture that accord with its espoused values. In other words visible moral and ethical behaviours.

Discipline – Hmm. Well this can have a pejorative meaning in many contexts, but here, we are talking about sticking with things, keeping going when things get tough, when confidence wavers, when enthusiasm wanes… Also, willingly doing what is required to achieve the organisation’s goals within the parameters prescribed, and not doing your own thing.

Unit cohesion – Collective focused efforts reminding me of Aristotle’s ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ or ‘The whole is other than the sum of its parts’ – the psychologist Koffka’s translation on perceptions that the whole exists in isolation of the parts. Without getting too deeply into philosophy and psychology I am not knowledgeable enough to understand properly, maybe both translations apply in my argument? The first is pretty self explanatory and often used about great teams. The second is interesting as one interpretation could be the huge importance of perception. If the unit cohesion needed to complete the meaning of morale is missing, what is in its place? Or what do people think is in its place? How many different versions or understandings of ‘the whole’ (the organisation) are there? And might unit cohesion be inconsistent or missing because not everyone has the confidence, enthusiasm and discipline that strong morale also requires?

I’m worried that I am starting to ramble a bit, but what I am trying to convey is my strong belief in the impact of consistent and transparent moral behaviour on morale.

As a final thought, maybe ‘moral’ and ‘morale’ are words used less often these days when the focus is on ‘engagement’, ‘employee voice’, ‘wellbeing at work’, the link between happiness and productivity etc. But maybe they should be – after all they have been around for 7 and 3 centuries respectively – whereas some of our current terminology, despite the growing evidence base, sounds too much like ‘management jargon’ and has little meaning to lots of people. Whereas I think most people at work are expert at linking what the organisation says its values are, with their experience and perception of what happens day to day, and could very easily describe the morals in evidence and then state how these make them feel about their work and that of their teams.


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