I’ve been shot at, bombed, injured in explosions. I’ve been to some of the most hostile situations you’ll face, and yet, while my civilian life may have kept me safe from the bullets, bombs and land-mines, it has lacked other aspects which keep us safe and make us all stronger as a collective. I am talking about workplace wellbeing in the shape of morale.

Now, to some, a battle-hardened ex-marine likening wellbeing to the battlefield might appear far fetched, but my experience in the Royal Marines showed me why it isn’t. After all, marines marched on two things: their bellies, and their morale. If one of those two key ingredients were missing, our wellbeing plummeted and performance would suffer and lives would be put at risk.

But why is this important? The workplace challenges of today – from quiet quitting, the great resignation, and the burnout epidemic among the workforce – can all be linked to poor individual and team morale. The maths is simple; burnout, depression, anxiety and stress costs UK employers up to £56 billion a year. Also, replacing a salaried employee can cost, on average, between 6-9 months’ salary – roughly £30,000.

During my years in combat, morale was an ever-present part of the job – it was what helped me and my highly-trained, elite commandos accept putting our lives on the line in return for just £19,000 a year, and a green hat.

Once I had left the Marines and faced a greater battle to find my way in the civilian world, I began coaching business and corporate leaders about the commando mindset, and how to unlock high-performing teams. Yet, from almost every conversation I have, be it enterprise CEOs wanting to achieve more from less, scale-up COO’s wanting to protect their quality of work while onboarding at scale, or SME’s conscious of project-driven burnout – it is becoming startling just how many organisations do not realise how few had morale on their radar, let alone understand how to cultivate it.

Morale Begins at the Top – Is Mastered in the Middle:

While morale, culture and clarity of purpose are set from the top of organisations, in the Marines, we understood that morale was not solely the responsibility of the senior leadership, it was predominately the responsibility of the sergeants and corporals of troops; people who are the equivalent of managers or team leaders in the civilian world.

The main difference between the two worlds was that in the Marines, we were specifically given the skills to be effective team leaders and to have the emotional intelligence, empathy and communication skills to be able to genuinely connect with our troops, and be able to monitor, manage and improve morale, wellbeing – and ultimately, the success of our missions.

In most businesses and organisations, people are typically given team leadership and management responsibilities based upon their technical performance, or as a reward for their aptitude. The fact that people leave bad managers – not bad jobs – proves that most managers simply aren’t provided with the skills, understanding and training required to effectively build high morale or high-performing, resilient teams.

The way people manage and connect with one another is at the heart of good morale and effective teams. Without this, people will disengage, burn out, lose sight of the mission, drop performance, and likely walk away.

Morale In Action:

It’s time for candid conversations and solutions within the workplace when it comes to morale. If you’re a business leader, ask yourself a few questions:

1) Do I recognise and champion my employees for their successes?
2) Are you investing in people’s team leadership and management skills?
3) Are staff engaged with tasks and their team?

Then ask yourself one more question: What more can I do to help foster greater workplace wellbeing with regard to the above questions? It might appear tricky at first, but as with all things in life, the more readily we are prepared to discuss them, the easier and more commonplace it becomes.

Let’s look at some actionable, tangible methods that businesses can adopt in order to improve morale in the workplace, with the first being about the importance of public recognition. A recent study from Psychology Today found that 76% of people found peer praise either ‘very or extremely motivating’, and when more than four out of five respondents found this to be an inspiring approach, it is clear that showing praise and value to your employees is a huge benefit to morale.

It is important to invest in people’s team leadership and management skills – and to link people’s ability to effectively lead and manage other people to their career progression. A Clear Company study found that 94% of employees would stay at a company longer if they invested in their professional development, but there should be an understanding in the difference between those who progress for an ability to manage and lead others, versus those with high levels of technical skills, who perhaps aren’t suited to people management roles.

This was completely true in the Marines. I had once been given a troop of fresh cadets; young men trying to find some direction by enrolling in the military, and I complained to higher ranks that they were hopeless, but I was given a stern dressing down and told there was no such thing as a poor troop, just poor leadership. My progression through the ranks was directly linked to my ability to manage and lead my troops.

However, in the business world specific training and development of people management skills – which are at the heart of good morale – are often the preserve of the senior ranks and not seen as a must-have across every level of an organisation.

It is a genuine skill to understand the personal dynamics and relationships with any team or organisation, and understanding the importance of individuality and that every human being is different – from what motivates and engages them, to the home life events which will often dictate their daily energy and mindset. So, one size does not certainly fit all, and is why people skills are so important.

The Daily Engagement Challenge:

Marine troops did everything together – this meant that we could all easily read each other’s body language, put a hand on our pals’ shoulders and check that they were okay. And as leaders, we had to sense the overall mood and energy of our troops, and act accordingly – whether that was the need for humour or a rest, or knowing it was a high energy day where we could achieve more than was planned.

At the core of this, we all knew that if we weren’t honest with each other about our energy or feelings then we wouldn’t be able to look after each other, and ultimately, trust each other with our lives.

Replicating this frequent engagement is hard to recreate in many business environments, especially when we’re working remotely, and our human urge is to protect ourselves by putting on a brave face to our managers and saying we’re feeling better than we really are. This is why employers have to truly work to create and show that everyone in their team is safe, to be honest, vulnerable and to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work. Not only does this help good managers better support their teams, but by being fully heard in the workplace, workers are less likely to disengage with tasks and their belonging within an organisation as a whole.

In Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report for 2022, they found that just two out of five (21%) of employees are engaged at work. The same report found that stress is higher now than during the Covid-19 pandemic, and low engagement alone ‘costs the global economy $7.8 trillion’.

Boosting engagement requires consistent, open and genuine conversations with teams; for people to belong they have to be heard – your quarterly staff engagement survey is barely touching the sides.

Measure It to Manage It:

This is why these conversations should be considered as the new business metric alongside revenue, gross margin, retention rates, and all the other metrics that business leaders have become accustomed to talking about.

For employers to have any chance of unlocking the high performance and high morale within their teams, they have to consider how and why they are measuring the wellbeing of their employees. Personally, I believe measuring engagement isn’t that useful because it does not tell you if people are engaged positively or negatively – maybe you have a workforce which delights in analysing and critiquing every leadership decision. The Marines approach is to monitor morale on a daily basis alongside an analysis of the performance of our missions.

Morale is entirely people-centric and it can help us overcome so many challenges that everyone faces in their daily lives, and I passionately believe that so many of the skills and strategies that we were explicitly taught in the Royal Marines can pay huge dividends for every employer. Without morale, your company could be stumbling towards a cliff edge, whereas it should be marching towards success.

Ben Williams
Ben Williams
CEO at Loopin | Website

Business Founder Ben Williams is an ex-Royal Marine Commando, author, and CEO of Loopin. Through Loopin, Ben aims to provide managers and their teams with the tools and tech that make up for the fact that most managers of teams were never taught to manage teams. He is doing this by combining his EQ-based coaching model with cutting-edge data science and AI through his latest venture, Loopin.