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Morale, Change, and Positive Organizations

written by Dave Shearon 17 July 2008

Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

Dave's articles are here.

morale4 This article is about morale and organizations helping us change for the better. Have you got any stories about great morale in an organization and its effect on the members? Maybe how a terrific leader or group response to a challenge improved morale? Let’s hear your story!

Christopher Peterson, a faculty member for the MAPP program, his research partner Nansook Park, and Patrick Sweeney of the United States Military Academy have published “Group Well-Being: Morale from a Positive Psychology Perspective” in Applied Psychology: An International Review. They note that the study of institutions that enable those things that make life worth living is “the acknowledged weak link of positive psychology” and suggest that research on “morale” as a group level construct can move the field forward in this area. Since I am working now on a 90-minute presentation I will give at the 1L orientations of two law schools in Tennessee in August, this article connects my thoughts both on organizations and on initiating and facilitating individual change and growth.

The authors suggest that morale is both an individual and a group construct and should be studied at both levels with methodologically independent measures. Peterson et al. note that positive psychology has made progress in studying other ordinary language concepts by articulating their dimensions and devising separate measures for them, e.g., happiness includes dimensions of pleasure, engagement, and meaning. The components they suggest  for morale are:

  • Confidence
  • Enthusiasm
  • Optimism (both future expectations and explanatory style)
  • Belief in capabilities
  • Resilience
  • Leadership
  • Mutual trust and respect
  • Loyalty
  • Social Cohesion — friends at work
  • Common purpose
  • Devotion
  • Sacrifice
  • Compelling group history
  • Honor
  • Sense of moral rightness

They note that most of these components can be characteristics of both the individual and the group, though some apply only at one level of analysis. Further, it may be that different morale profiles may be required in different organizations — a baseball team may not need the same configuration of morale as a combat brigade or a transplant surgery team.

Law schools are where morale goes to die, both at the individual and group levels. As I have written in “Dear Ann Althouse — No, it’s not ok“:

Although they look much like other undergraduates coming in, by the end the first year 30% are depressed, and it goes to 40% by the end of law school. Drinking as a coping behavior goes up. Anxiety, hostility and paranoia increase. And, there is a shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivations for practicing law. In other words, students go from wanting to do good to wanting to get the goods. And these trends continue into practice where lawyers lead the professions in the rate of depression. To put it mildly, this is not good for clients!

For evidence of the morale-killing dynamic in law schools, see my description of the response of Ms. Althouse and James White to the data on the effect of the law school experience on students.

As I am working on how to help law students thrive rather than wither, I have been reviewing the work of Prochaska and colleagues on the steps of change and the processes that support those steps. One of the processes is “social liberation.” I think the term “liberation” was chosen because most of Prochaska’s work focuses on freedom from self-destructive habits, particularly smoking. Thus, the proliferation of no-smoking zones would be a “social liberation” process available to the individual seeking to quit smoking. That individual can adopt those zones as a support for the process of change. From a growth perspective of attempting to develop and engage strengths, hope, optimism, resilience and other positive qualities, the term “social support” makes more sense to me.

How do our organizations, such as law schools, support (or hinder) the development and use, both individually and in a group context, of positive human qualities? It strikes me that the study of morale may offer us new pathways in this area.


Peterson, C., Park, N., & Sweeney, P. (2008). Group Well-Being: Morale from a Positive Psychology Perspective. Applied Psychology, 57-S1, 19.36. Abstract.

Prochaska, J. O., Norcross, J. C. & Diclemente, C. C. (1994). Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward. New York: HarperCollins.

Shearon, D. (2007, Feb 20). Dear Ann Althouse — No, it’s not ok. Positive psychology for lawyers and education leaders.

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Senia Maymin 18 July 2008 - 8:21 am

Dave, I really like it when you write about the plight of lawyers. I have so many people coming up to me at talks I give – or contacting me online who are from law who just don’t know what to do. They feel overworked, stretched. And I refer them to your past articles. Thank you for another one.

Nicholas Hall 18 July 2008 - 12:26 pm

Hi Dave,

This article gets me thinking… your question at the end… basically, what can be done for law school students to prevent this downward trend (and organizations in general you mention)? You mentioned earlier in your article about how law school students go from “wanting to do good to wanting to get the goods.” A couple things come to mind.

First, I wonder how anyone could be happy in law school. For the most part, lawyers have to wade in the muck of the details of modern society that separates people, one from another – modern law. “This is mine, that’s your’s,” etc. And it is usually surrounded by lots of negative emotions. Perhaps one thing that law schools (and other institutions, perhaps) could do is to reframe the function of law to their students. The students could do this themselves through clubs and the like. Reframing the profession as one that promotes greater harmony and relieves discord in society could be a first step. Building emotionally intelligent skills into the population such as resilience, reframing, and optimism would go a long way. I believe that these things would do better if institutionalized by the school itelf, though could easily be done from a grassroots level.

Good article.

Jeff Dustin 18 July 2008 - 8:23 pm

I knew a friend of a friend who was a divorce attorney. He framed his view of divorce as a way to help couples find greater happiness separate than together. Fairly. Granted he was an attorney, supposedly a group that doesn’t get as depressed by the law, but he was unusually upbeat and happy about his profession.

It was impressive. Was he merely a statistical outlier, someone who was several standard deviations above the normal distribution in positivity? Did he possess a fortress of social support? Did he have superior genetic brain endowments? I don’t know, but my best guess is his habit of thinking and acting optimistically buffered the stressors of the profession.

OSHA has had a model of stress that I found instructive. People can have individual resistances and organizations can resistances to stress. The OSHA model I saw had a diagram of a brick-wall that was being penetrated by a big arrow labelled STRESS. The more resistances you had, the longer it took for stress to bust down the wall…but it eventually would break through unless the stress was reduced. Although the diagram may have been ideology-driven more than factual, I don’t know, it seemed to make sense.

I like the reframing idea. I think it would help some of the stress bounce off law students. I think that developing and sustaining a strong sense of ethical purpose is a logical step as a protective factor for students. Maybe someday there will be double-bind outcome studies that find out which stress-inoculating exercises work best and for whom, when, and in what combinations.

Good thinking Nick and Dave.

Dave Shearon 19 July 2008 - 7:08 am

Hi, Nick. I’m thinking the way you’re thinking. David Hall (http://www.sacredrivers.neu.edu/about_the_author/) argues that law schools “where the values and spiritual foundations of future lawyers are nurtured, challenged and systematically emphasized.” I think that’s a good philosophcial foundation.

I also think using data on student well-being to guide institutional change can help. Both of the schools I’m working with are using a version of Krieger & Sheldon’s instrument as a way to monitor their efforts to improve student well-being.

Dave Shearon 19 July 2008 - 7:12 am

Jeff, Larry Krieger at Florida State actually uses a version of your suggestion. In his classes, he provides each student with a copy of the essay they wrote about why they wanted to go to law school. He emphasizes to them the loss of intrinsic motivations that can happen in law school and suggests that they reflect on the original reasons they expressed. This may not help those who wrote an essay that only said what they thought the admissions panel wanted to hear, but Larry finds it does help many.

Thanks for your thoughts!

Jeff Dustin 19 July 2008 - 11:56 am

That’s good to hear. I wonder if some of Angela Duckworth’s grit studies will bear fruit for lawyers. I bet there’s a connection among resilience, grit, optimism, meaning: PsyCap.

That term hasn’t left my mind since you brought it up. What a precise way to capture these kinds of strengths of character in a more neutral but understandable way. Are there any brief surveys/interview questions that a coach could use to get a snapshot of psycap? In my opinion, the briefer such a tool is the better for a quick picture of what’s going on with someone’s mind. Schools have such a tool for learning called Curriculum-Based Measurement. It is an instrument that can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of students. A similar assessment could work for helping lawyers feel better.

Maybe someone could keep data on the relationships among law students’ psycap after PP interventions and that of control groups. It would be interesting to see, for example, if lawyers’ PsyCap submeasures like optimism/hope and so on increased with certain interventions. Also what if certain interventions or practices had unusual effects?

Other data might be attrition numbers, that is the number of students leaving for any reason, after first-year…and other more traditional data that admissions offices keep.

I’d like to follow this story more closely, if you are inclined to write more on the PsyCap movement.

Jeff Dustin 19 July 2008 - 12:08 pm

Dave, one more thing. This question/idea popped into mind about PsyCap and more generally about trends in organizations.

Have you ever heard of chaos theory and historical determinism? I don’t know a lot about it but the gist that I get from these two concepts is that there are both incremental changes in organizations and drastic events that radically alter them.

How does an organization keep its values, strengths, etc. while undergoing both forces of change?

Political parties struggle with this all of the time. Professions, and I might argue all organizations must deal with the uncertainty of the world to some extent to survive and flourish.

A practical example could be: you have a team with excellent morale, however measured. There is cohesiveness, trust, the works. A new teammate enters the group and the dynamic radically changes for the worse. The team becomes strained in its relationships and performance suffers.

Another example is entropic forces causing a team to gradually lose focus and fall apart over time. In the sixties there was the peace movement. In our time we’ve seen these same people become the Baby Boomers of Ill Repute. “Flower meets Power” to steal one of Volkswagon’s Beetle slogans.

How can an organization expect to roll with these kinds of change forces?

Wayne Jencke 19 July 2008 - 3:40 pm

Dave – I’m doing a PP presentation to a group of family court lawyers. Two themes I will be discussing are optimism (research shows that the best lawyers a pessimistic) and active constructive communication (inquisitorial as opposed to adversarial).

Dave Shearon 19 July 2008 - 11:02 pm

Jeff, I am working with one the PsyCap authors now. Hopefully I’ll have more to report soon.

As for chaos theory, you might enjoy Surfing the Edge of Chaos. I wrote a book note about it here:

Dave Shearon 19 July 2008 - 11:10 pm

Wanye, I’m aware of research showing that law students with a negative explanatory style (sometimes called pessimism) get better grades than their more positive peers after controlling for college GPA and LSAT score. However, I haven’t run across any research (just lots of speculation) showing that “the best” lawyers — tough thing to identify from a research perspective! — are more pessimistic in either the explanatory style or the future expectancies sense. I hope you can point me to the research you’ve found.

Wayne Jencke 20 July 2008 - 12:09 am

Sorry – meant explanatory style and grades

Peter Perkins 22 July 2008 - 8:23 pm

Thank you Dave for an excellent review. This draws me towards thoughts of the dynamics of social change and the fact that other professions also act as inhibitors. I have often said that economists have a lot to answer for, aside from just promoting the “dismal science”. Many of us economists have found the underlying premise of economics (the study of the allocation of scarce resources amongst competing means) as limiting, and it is helpful to see the emergence of Pos-Psych to offer more constructive approaches to the challenges ahead, especially those eminating from climate change. Community interest and the common good may indeed be the greater motivator for change than self interest and the old notion of “utility”. Beware any “rational economists” solutions or those of politicians and lawyers.


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