8 ways police leaders can improve morale

“Morale is to the mind what ‘condition’ is to the body. It is the fitness of the mind for the task at hand,” — B. W. Gocke

This article, originally publised January 2015, has been updated with current information.

Improving morale is everyone’s responsibility, but the idea is to improve morale in a way that creates the greatest positive impact. Individual officers can change behaviors and attitudes, but supervisors and administrators have much more control and are often able to influence at much greater levels. So even though morale is everyone’s responsibility, the ultimate responsibility for declining morale is often placed back on leadership, at least through the eyes of the officer.

A study conducted by Amaranto et al. (2003) addressed “...job-related stressors associated with exposure to violence in various police departments...” (as cited in Chae & Boyle, 2013). The majority of survey participants noted low morale and the lack of acknowledgement regarding achievements as two major issues related to job stress (as cited in Chae & Boyle, 2013, p. 94, para. 4). Research and literature have linked organizational stress to such things as: diminished job satisfaction, increased employee turnover, decreased motivation, and low morale.

Individual officers can change behaviors and attitudes, but supervisors and administrators have much more control and are often able to influence at much greater levels.
Individual officers can change behaviors and attitudes, but supervisors and administrators have much more control and are often able to influence at much greater levels.

Why Does Morale Matter?

Morale is a thermometer for the health of your department. Low morale levels may indicate a systemic problem.

Many officers have said that morale is low in their departments, explaining that it has been this way for years. However, declining morale is not something that generally occurs overnight. Oftentimes, morale simply slips away. We all get caught up the mundane, day-to-day tasks associated with work, and we tend to forget about the human component. It becomes each man and woman for his or her self.

So how do we get to a place where work is no longer enjoyable? How do we get to a place where people don’t feel appreciated for their contributions? More importantly, how can we begin to reverse the wheels and start improving the morale in your department today? 

Declining Morale

The idea of declining morale leads one to believe that morale once existed, and hopefully it has. Nothing will be perfect, personalities will clash, and the bureaucracy will often win out, but deep down, do you remember a time when morale was strong? When there was a sense of purpose and brotherhood/sisterhood? What did this time look like? And what changed? In order to know where to begin, one needs to know where they came from and what they hope to accomplish.

Steps Toward Improving Morale

  1. Give credit where credit is due. Always praise in public and discipline in private.
  2. Start looking for the good. It is very easy to see the bad or the wrong, but be intentional to notice officers doing things right and reward accordingly.
  3. Stop micromanaging. If you hire someone to do the job, then let him or her do it. You obviously thought they were qualified when you hired them. Will mistakes be made? Of course, but those are learning moments. Morale can drop if your officers don’t think you have faith in them.
  4. For supervisors: Plug in and mean it. Get to know the officers you are in charge of. Show a real interest in them and their families. This can help you two-fold. You may begin to better understand your officers and you may see issues they are facing because you took the time to care.
  5. Work on eliminating unnecessary conflict. Stress is a part of life, but no one needs additional issues to deal with. Address any and all conflict so it does not affect morale.
  6. As a supervisor, ask your crew what you can do to help increase morale. Set the example by acknowledging your responsibility to help increase morale.
  7. Try celebrating birthdays, promotions, etc., while on duty. Buy a cake, have the crew sign a card. This is a small gesture, but it really goes a long way.
  8. Communicate openly, honestly, and most importantly, positively.

The Importance of Morale

Morale is important for several reasons, but most importantly “… it builds efficiency, it creates discipline that is voluntary and enthusiastic rather than enforced” (Gocke, 1945, p. 216, para. 2). In addition, morale “… aims to stimulate and assist the weak, direct the strong, correct the erring, educate the uninformed, and further encourage the successful. It brings enjoyment to work and pride in accomplishment” (Gocke, 1945, p. 216, para. 2). 

When morale is high, there is a buy-in to the goals and the overall mission of the department. High morale helps officers cope with the day-to-day demands, the ups and downs of the job, and with issues and discouragement that often coincide with police work. 

We know what low morale produces, but high morale is not only necessary for a healthy department, but also for healthy members.

Chae, M.H., & Boyle, D.J. (2013). Police suicide: prevalence, risk, and protective factors.
Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 36(1), 91-
Gocke, B.W. (1945-46). Morale in a police department. Journal of Criminal Law and
Criminology, 36(3), 215-219.

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