With Martin G. Moore

Episode #281

Building Team Morale: Confident, Secure, and Enabled to Perform

A number years ago, when we first started the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast, one of our listeners, Steen Bisgaard, made a comment on a social media post that has stuck with me ever since.

The post was about building team morale, and I was probably being just a little unkind to the wave of leaders who think their main objective is to keep their people happy… it’s not!

Steen’s comment was about building morale in a military context:

“Soldiers with high morale aren’t ‘happy’: they’re confident, secure, and enabled to perform. They’re not well-fed, rested, and kept out of harm’s way.”

In this episode, I expose the fallacy of conventional wisdom about team performance, and flesh out what it really takes to build team morale!

I also give you a practical list of the DOs and DON’Ts for building morale in your people.


Get yours delivered straight to your inbox by filling out the form below 👇

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.


Episode #281 Building Team Morale: Confident, Secure, and Enabled to Perform


A number of years ago, when we first started the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast, a listener made a comment on one of our social media posts that has stuck with me ever since.

Big shout out to Steen Bisgaard, founder of the defense supply company, GaardTech. I met Steen when I spoke to his MBA cohort at the University of Queensland in 2018. As a former officer in the Australian military, Steen has a keen sense of what strong leadership means and how essential it is for any team that aspires to perform at its peak.

My LinkedIn post was about how to build team morale, and I was probably being just a little unkind to the wave of leaders who think that their main objective is to keep their people happy – that old “happy workers are productive workers” fallacy.

This is why I found Steen’s comment to be so simple but powerful. It was about building morale in the military and he wrote, “Soldiers with high morale aren’t ‘happy’. They’re confident, secure, and enabled to perform. They’re not well-fed, rested, and kept out of harm’s way.”

I liked this comment so much that I even included it as a quote in my book, No Bullsh!t Leadership when I wrote it a little while later.

In this episode, I flesh out the concept of team morale based on Steen’s quote. What can you really do to build strong team morale?

I’ll begin with a little myth busting on ‘happy worker’ syndrome. I’ll then spend a few minutes dissecting the anatomy of morale – what it actually is – and I’ll finish with a brief list of DOs and DON’Ts that are going to help you to make practical decisions in the moment. I’ve even made this into a downloadable PDF.


We’re frequently reminded that happy workers are productive workers, but this is rarely true. Most often happy workers are just… happy!

The happy worker fallacy has become part of conventional wisdom. I had a crack at explaining why conventional wisdom is so seductive, but also deeply flawed in my recent TEDx Talk: The Surprising Power of Constructive Conflict. It’s definitely worth 11:33 of your time to watch.

As for the conventional wisdom that tells us happy workers are productive workers, the difference lies in our perspective on what “happy” actually means – are we talking about short-term or long-term happiness?

As humans, we’re pretty poor at prioritizing long-term outcomes. If we were actually good at it, we would eat, sleep, socialize, exercise, and spend our time quite differently. And it’s not because we are bad or lazy. It’s because that’s the way we are programmed.

There are countless examples of companies that set out to make their people happy, with the expectation that it’s going to improve performance… but it doesn’t. And despite any claims to the contrary, it often does quite the opposite to team performance. This is because the effort to create short-term happiness is always misdirected.

Instead of driving towards the deep, long-term satisfaction that really embeds peak performance, most leaders focus on delivering short-term sugar hits of happiness. The short-term stuff is really easy. But the long-term stuff? Well, that takes work.

Short-term sugar hit remedies are things like:

  • Providing more flexibility in working hours and location

  • Higher pay

  • Perks like free cookies, coffee and pizza, and

  • Office amenities, like entertainment areas and games rooms.

These are all fine, as long as they’re balanced with long-term strategies as well. But the most counterproductive short-term move is allowing people to self-regulate their behavior and performance.

Even your highest-caliber people are only going to give you 80% to 85% of effort… on their best day! People only lift when a leader requires them to lift. So, even though most people will love anything you can do to improve their short-term happiness, it will never enable them to walk the path to true satisfaction and long-term fulfillment.


You’ve probably heard me say in the past that the older I get, the less certain I am about practically everything. But there’s one thing I’m pretty sure about, and the more I see, the more convinced I become:

All self-esteem comes from achieving difficult things. That’s it.

Think about the last time you experienced that feeling of being bulletproof… invincible… unstoppable. I can almost guarantee that it was just after you’d accomplished something hard; something difficult or uncertain; something that you thought you might not be able to do; something that maybe even really scared you.

Long-term satisfaction and fulfillment lives here, not in the surface stuff. That’s just a distraction. Without a measure of performance pressure, personal stretch, and even uncertainty attached to an outcome, you can never experience the feeling of real, deep lasting fulfillment.

The focus that many leaders place on the short-term sugar hit type of happiness is actually counterproductive. It effectively prevents people from taking the actions to set and achieve something of greater value.

Why do leaders fall into this short-term cycle so easily though? Because it satisfies their desire to be liked. When you give people what they want, there’s no tension. But when you ask people to step up, they’re often going to push back.

I’ve led workforces in the past that had become so accustomed to getting what they wanted, that they became entitled and unhappy. I was blown away when I discovered that some of the highest paid, most under-worked, least stressed employees were often the unhappiest. And, of course, imagine someone like me coming in and setting new expectations. You can imagine the passive-aggressive resistance that that generated.

If you focus on trying to make your people happy instead of providing the opportunity for them to develop their self-esteem, well, you’re missing the point. And no matter how hard you try to convince yourself otherwise, team performance will always elude you.


With that backdrop of the relationship between happiness and performance, let’s consider morale. dictionary.com defines morale as, “The confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline of a person or group at a particular time.” I think we can all agree that the higher morale you have, the better it is. And when you think about it, this is the best way to describe a team pursuing long-term fulfillment, satisfaction, and self-esteem. Teams that fit this description won’t all be high performing teams, but I’d suggest that this is the true pathway to performance that leaders need to focus on.

Let’s get back to Steen’s quote. What is it that drives morale? Being confident, secure, and enabled to perform… as opposed to being well-fed, rested and kept out of harm’s way.

Many of the things we do as leaders push us towards the latter. When you focus on making your people happy; when you convince yourself that you’re just putting people before profits; when you try to protect your people from adversity and conflict; you are not doing them any favors.

Confidence comes from knowing that you can handle any situation that presents itself. It requires resilience, and experience, and resourcefulness. It’s that deep knowledge that you are prepared for anything. You cannot achieve that level of confidence unless you frequently push yourself to test those limits. Any confidence that isn’t founded in this work is simply blind arrogance.

Security comes from knowing that the people around you have your back. You are confident in their ability, their character and their intent. You know that they’re going to be there to support you if you need it, and you’ll be there for them. You trust your leaders to set and maintain a high standard of performance, and everyone around you aspires to be better and to play their part in the team dynamic.

How about the ability to perform? This comes from repetition, discipline and experience. You constantly work on your craft and seek excellence in every area of your performance… and, on top of this, you are realistic about where you are.

I find it really useful to use the lens of the four stages of competence when trying to self-evaluate your ability:

The first stage is unconscious incompetence: You’re incompetent, and you don’t even know enough to realize that!

The second stage is conscious incompetence. You’re not competent, but at least you know enough to realize that you’re not competent.

The third stage is conscious competence. You know that you’re competent, but it’s not automatic. You have to concentrate on it and you have to think about it in order to achieve the desired outcomes.

And the final stage, which we all aspire to, is unconscious competence. You are highly competent and it’s such an integral part of who you are and what you do that you don’t even need to think about it – it just happens.

One of the most common leadership failures in creating a high morale environment is making exceptions for poor performers. It erodes morale because it undermines every single one of the preconditions that I’ve just covered.

A poor performer who’s allowed to remain on the team undermines your confidence in the team. It diminishes your sense of security because it’s obvious that not everyone around you is the right person in the right role. You can’t necessarily rely on them. And it certainly makes you question whether they’re enabled to perform. They’re not.

So as much as you think that making an exception for a well-meaning, but poor performing individual is the compassionate thing to do, what you’re effectively doing is robbing every other person of their opportunity to create superior performance and high morale. Just bear this in mind when your subconscious tries to convince you that not taking action on an under performer is all for the best.


I’m going to finish by outlining five key principles for building morale, and give you the DOs and DON’Ts around each.

Principle #1: Set and maintain a high standard.


  • Ensure that each person rises to the minimum acceptable standard, which you have to set

  • Put pressure on all your people to rise to their own individual potential because, as I said before, they won’t do this by themselves.

  • Enforce the standard in everything you do. No exceptions.

  • Challenge people with high value tasks that make a real difference, and

  • Celebrate improvements in performance – make sure people know that they’re hitting the mark.


  • Don’t overburden your people with a workload that doesn’t add value.

  • Don’t assign any work that doesn’t make sense or isn’t rational, and

  • Don’t keep changing the goalposts – make sure people have stable targets to shoot for.

Principle #2: Provide a ‘fault-tolerant’ environment.


  • Make sure you give people the space to make mistakes and grow.

  • Encourage people to take well-considered, calculated risks, and

  • Make sure that every individual feels as though they’re working with a net – that they have your support behind them.


  • Don’t allow dumb sh!t: when people do stupid things, they still need to be pulled up.

  • Don’t let people repeat mistakes without correcting them and learning, and

  • Whatever you do, don’t support people who ignore your guidance or otherwise go out of bounds: if they do that, they’re on their own.

Principle #3: Build a culture of excellence over perfection.


  • Create a sense of momentum

  • Reinforce the principles of good judgment, and

  • Give feedback based on your honest assessment of outcomes so that you can try things, correct them and keep moving. This is going to create momentum.


  • Don’t harp on irrelevant sh!t – stay out of the details, and let people work towards an outcome… don’t get into the minutiae with them.

  • Don’t mistake sloppiness with a desire for excellence over perfection… sometimes people are just going to take shortcuts, and that’s not what we’re talking about. And,

  • Don’t tolerate laziness or ill intent.

Principle #4: Communicate constantly.


  • Create a culture of constant feedback, both formal and informal – people should be hearing from you all the time.

  • Make your feedback direct, honest, specific and timely.

  • Always reaffirm the mission, and why you are striving for that additional performance.

  • Give calibrating information as you progress, by helping people to understand whether they’re hitting the mark, whether they’re not, whether they’re warm or cold, whether they’re going in the right direction.

  • Always identify and communicate increases in both individual and team resilience. As you see people getting stronger and getting better, make sure you give them that feedback so that they know. And,

  • Make sure you emphasize the importance of each individual’s contribution to the team.


  • Don’t deliver “sh!t sandwiches”. If you haven’t heard this expression, a sh!t sandwich is when you’ve got something difficult to tell someone, and you try and wrap it up to make it easier for you to deliver that feedback. So you’ve got some sh!t in the middle that you have to say, but you position it between two nice, fluffy white pieces of bread on either side. The feedback goes something like this: “You are awesome. This is a problem. But don’t worry because you are awesome.” That sort of feedback is just confusing.

  • Don’t indulge in non-specific platitudes. Don’t just tell people how great they are without actually explaining why. Always think about finishing your sentences with the word, “because”. For example, “I think you’re fantastic because you delivered this particular piece of work on time and it was really high quality.”

  • Don’t pull back on your communication in times of uncertainty. When things are least certain, that’s when people need the most communication. But our tendency is to pull back when we don’t have all the answers.

Principle #5: Create an iron-clad accountability regime.


  • Implement the ‘one head to pat, one arse to kick’ principle.

  • Make it really clear who owns what.

  • Hold people to account for their choices about performance and behavior, and

  • Ask people how they intend to rectify any failures in accountability that you observe.


  • Don’t overlook poor behavior when people have other pressures in their lives, and

  • Don’t listen to excuses – every excuse is just a variation on a theme. In actual fact, what they’re saying is, “The dog ate my homework!”


If we take a step back and look at all of this, the message is really clear, and I can summarize it really simply: Don’t be a weak leader.

Weak leaders will do all sorts of things to avoid the hard path to building team morale. Then, they’ll just rationalize their actions so that they can justify it to themselves.

Building team morale means leaving behind the notion of trying to make people happy. It requires you to embrace the difficult truth that individual self-esteem, and ultimately, team morale comes from your willingness to lead people with a level of strength and commitment that very few leaders possess.

The difference between a team that’s well-fed, rested, and kept out of harm’s way, and a team that’s confident, secure, and enabled to perform is night and day. Which one are you building?



  • Explore other podcast episodes – Here

  • Take our FREE 5 Day Leadership Challenge – Start Now

  • Check out our 8-week online leadership program, Leadership Beyond the TheoryLearn More


Here’s how you can make a difference:

  • Subscribe to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast

  • Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts

  • Repost this episode to your social media

  • Share your favourite episodes with your leadership network

  • Tag us in your next post and use the hashtag #nobsleadership