Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Many Faces of Low Morale

And it's one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam.
And it's five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates.
Well there ain't no time to wonder why.
Whoopee! We're all gonna die.

    -Country Joe and the Fish

I want to talk a bit about morale.

As game developers, we have good days and bad days. When it's good, it's pretty exhilarating. We're lucky in that our industry is one where many of us do what we love; what we believe in. Most of us approach each day energized, and ready to make something cool.

When that morale drops, however, even the passion we have for our work can be too weak to stir us. It becomes a chore to start or continue a task; to find inspiration; to be critical of our own work; even to approach others. In a way, much of what makes us good game developers comes and goes with our morale.

As someone who's worked continuously for the last 14 years, I've been through a few spells of low morale. And as I became more familiar with them, I started noticing certain signature behaviors in myself and others. During one particularly long bout, I decided to catalog my feelings and behaviors as I had them, with the intent of cleaning it up for presentation and review later.

That "later" has finally come, and I've put together the list below. My hope is that it does a few things:
  1. Help managers recognize the tangible benefits of high morale by contrasting against what is lost to low morale.
  2. Help employees to understand how low morale can cause a negative feedback loop, worsening the problem.
  3. Help both managers and employees alike to recognize the symptoms when they suffer from them.
Low morale has a way of creeping in, so sometimes we're under its influence before we realize it. And in many cases, our natural tendencies are to bunker down and make it worse. Recognizing that it's a problem, and when it happens, are important first steps towards taking corrective actions. Because, as we will see, low morale can have some pretty devastating effects, to individuals, their teams, and projects alike.

Motivation to Work

Probably the most obvious (and expected) effect of low morale is the lack of motivation to actually do work. I would have difficulty starting new tasks, or getting out of idle slumps. The prospect of coming in to work in the morning, or back from lunch to a task, felt burdensome instead of inviting. 

The days quickly devolve into a series of attempts at avoiding work, whether it be checking email, "researching" something on the web, or even making a long, slow trip to get a cup of coffee. I found I'd actually relish the need to use the restroom at times, because it meant I could take a walk away from my desk, even for a few minutes.

Not surprisingly, this type of foot-dragging creates a downward spiral, as tasks get pushed back later and later, piling up and seeming even more insurmountable against the already low, and falling, motivation.

Reactive Posture

Another fairly obvious change in my work ethic involved my willingness to seek out work. When succumbed by low morale, it was tempting to just wait for tasks to come to me, rather than seek out what needed doing most. I just didn't have the energy nor motivation to make new work for myself. Instead, I would lay low and hope to be looked over when it came time to task someone with something.

Unfortunately, that tended to make things worse as well. Invariably, the tasks that did find their way to me were things that others didn't want to do, either. And since I was decidedly un-busy, I was ripe for nomination. Again, tasks would pile up almost as fast as my distaste.


One change that was a bit more of a surprise to me was my lowered investment in decision-making. As someone normally pretty engaged in lively debates (and a confessed contrarian), I was surprised to realize I just didn't care one way or the other how things turned out.

For someone to be this far gone should be concerning. Possibly the only mechanism one has for making things better is to be involved in decisions as they are made. Furthermore, personal investment in a project or organization are only likely to get worse as one sits out important decisions.

Less Feedback

Related to indecisiveness, above, I found a significant drop in my willingness to volunteer feedback to decisions and announcements. Like above, this only serves to dissociate one from the work or environment to which those decisions and announcements pertain.

Defensive Scheduling

My time became a battleground when my morale was at its lowest. I found myself defending personal time against any intrusion. If meetings ran long into my lunchtime, or overtime was called for, I was way more likely to make a "thing" of it. 

Ironically, for all of the lack of motivation and decisiveness exhibited in all other aspects, this area seemed to be the exact opposite. I had fuel for endless battles when it came to defending my personal time, and it only grew stronger the more I was resisted.


As with defensive scheduling, above, I also felt a distinct lack of enthusiasm or energy to do things not directly related to my job description. "Not my job" sprung to mind whenever anyone approached me with something I could find an excuse not to do.

In practice, this rarely plays out as obvious as that. Most people would prefer not to be "that guy," who shirks duties and passes the buck. Whether out of politeness or self preservation, most will quietly, begrudgingly, accept the tasks. However, this attitude can be as damaging just by virtue of the stress and resentment it breeds.


I also found it can be easy to become distracted by anxiety when one's future is uncertain. When one is worried about what comes next, their mind is not on the "now," and the work suffers. This is a slightly different facet of low morale, as it can infect even the most diligent employees. This sort of anxiety is often the result of leadership failing to communicate in ways that the employee responds to, failing to follow-through with promises, or not communicating at all.

To make matters worse, most game developers are able to call upon an extremely powerful imagination when trying to ascertain worst possible outcomes. And fear can be infectious between colleagues.


Possibly one of the more self-destructive aspects of low morale is the tendency to withdraw into oneself. Some employees actually form stronger coworker bonds during times of low morale, finding unity in the shared suffering. 

However, many in the games industry, myself included, are introverts. And introverts often find it easy to abandon social ties when things get tough. Over a period of time, I found myself transitioning away from daily lunch and evenings out with coworkers towards lunches at my desk, and retreating home after work.

The key behavior to watch for isn't necessarily reclusiveness (which might be normal), but rather a sudden or gradual divestment in social ties.

Nothing to Lose

For all the negative side-effects of low morale, it turns out there was at least one benefit: courage. When things are bad, it can feel like there is little room left to fall. Sometimes this can manifest as a desire to champion change within the workplace. 

More often, however, this is the trigger point for employee turnover. Visions of greener grass are all it takes to start vetting other employers, or new careers altogether.

Psychological Impact of Low Morale

Many of the above symptoms are not unlike experiencing depression, and maybe that should be no surprise. For many in the game industry, passion is what defines their career, and having that relationship fail can be devastating.

What are some things we can do to improve morale? A satisfactory discussion of that topic is well beyond the scope of a concluding paragraph. I've heard it said that employee autonomy is a good place to start. Another area to examine is whether your workplace is fostering the right balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, as having  purpose is an important motivator. Or maybe you just need to work on getting everyone on the same page.

Whatever the case, morale should be one of your organization's top concerns, right up there with finding top talent. Because if your current top talent is suffering any or all of the symptoms above, the aren't really top talent anymore. They're just unhappy warm bodies drawing top talent salaries until they can be inspired again.

A Note About Low Morale for Indies

Indies are by no means immune to the effects of low morale. It might sound as if many of the above are AAA organizational and leadership issues, but low morale can precipitate out of a one-man show as well. Faith in one's work, skill, or even platform of choice, can be shaken. Indecision can paralyze progress. Distractions become that much harder to combat with nobody nearby to keep you in check.

And the effects are just as damaging. Low motivation to work can halt progress. Energy for making decisions can come up short, causing a shift to busy work instead of meaningful analysis. And the tendency to withdraw socially can inhibit good customer relations and PR.

Indies have a fairly serious obligation to keep their personal health and morale in check. We may be blessed by a vast network of internet buddies pulling for us, but our remoteness from the network might mean we're "off the grid" for too long before someone notices.

Being sensitive to the symptoms of low morale can help alert us to things gone awry. We can recognize self-destructive behavior if we know what we're looking for. And armed with that knowledge, we can make incremental changes to help get ourselves back on track, or seek a friendly ear when it's too much to tackle alone.


  1. Nice post. I think the less feedback thing is probably the canary in the coal mine though. It also manifests as not fully reporting any problems they might be having. To go from the usual griping to suddenly quiet should throw up all manners of flags to a manager. They've capitulated at that point and will start to ping every single one of your other points.

    I don't know for sure what an indie could do. Keep a personal diary (not devlog) written for the future you? Or get a partner that slaps some sense into you when you start to detach from the project. :)

    Autonomy though is a personal preference and it'll depend on the target and their comfort level. The HBR article focuses on goal alignment and purpose more than full-stop FFA. And throwing random responsibilities onto someone already broken always seemed like a bad idea to me. Your best bet is to give them something worthwhile that could help others, but light on the responsibilities - which incidentally tends to be a lot of the pickup jobs that lower-tier tech managers end up with :P

  2. Yeah, sudden silence is a red flag. Good parenting/pet supervision tip, too :) "Why is my cat suddenly-hey, stop licking the butter!"

    And you're right about the random autonomy, too. Being a good manager means knowing the limits and comfort level of your charges.

    Someone who's experiencing low morale might just collapse under the weight of an architectural restructuring task. On the other hand, a meaningful-yet-achievable task can be just enough progress to restore some confidence and direction.

    In fact, that was my experience yesterday. After finishing the draft of this post, I was struggling to even open my IDE for a look at my work. However, forcing myself to finish even a small feature got me over the coefficient of static friction, so to speak. And by the end of the day, my modest progress made me feel better about approaching larger tasks today.

    You used 'coefficient of static friction' successfully in a blog post


  4. Great post, Dan. You are probably the most self-motivated guy I've ever worked with. So, if it can happen to you, it can happen to anyone. The introversion paragraph particularly resonated with me. When the balloon is getting too low, it's one of the first things I throw overboard. Unfortunately, being with people is one of the things that creates energy.

    For me it all seems like a series of energy sources and sinks. Getting myself out for a post-work pint is often a huge sink, but having done it is usually a net gain.

    I read an interview with Obama not too long ago where he talks about decision fatigue. His job is to make decisions all day and he found that any decisions made make further decisions more difficult. So, he's cut out a lot of the decision making in his life. He doesn't choose what to wear each day, for example. A friend of mine with a psych background tells me there is some validity in this.

    Illegitimi non carborundum.

    I'm currently reading Atlas Shrugged (I know, I know). There is a lot that is morally objectionable of course, but there is a lot of good stuff in it too. She came from Soviet Russia to the United States at an amazing time when skyscrapers were going up, highways were criss-crossing the nation and people were travelling the world in airplanes. It seemed like anything was possible. She bought into that ideal of human progress so much, and so infectiously that it really makes the book worthwhile. (So far, anyway - I have a long ways to go. Jeez she could have used an editor.)

    Anyway, there's a bit in it that applies to you, I think. The "scientific establishment" comes after Hank Rearden, who has invented a new kind of steel better than any previous, and give him an ultimatum: accept a gigantic pile of cash for the rights (which they'll bury) or have them get legislation passed that will shut him down.

    "You're in business to make money, aren't you?"
    "I am."
    "You want to make as big a profit as possible, don't you?"
    "I do."
    "Then why do you want to struggle for years, squeezing out your gains in the form of pennies per ton--rather than accept a fortune for Rearden Metal? Why?"
    "Because it's mine. Do you understand the word?"

    The dude pleads with him some more and then when it's clear that Rearden won't take the deal, he asks again:

    "Just between us, it's only my personal curiosity, why are you doing this?"
    Rearden answered quietly, "I'll tell you. You won't understand. You see, it's because Rearden metal is good."

    It might be pie in the sky to say that motivation can come from ideals, but you do have something that is yours and it's good. I've always admired guys like you that are willing to jump out of the cargo hold and figure out that whole ground thing when you get there. I've been too afraid that Bakay metal wouldn't be any good to actually try.

    I've retreated to the comfort of paycheques as I make products that are neither good nor mine. I don't know how, but try to remind yourself of guys like me (and you - remember the despairingly endless series of compromises we had to make that didn't make the game better?).

    I guess what I'm trying to say is try to remember why you started this adventure. Because you thought you could make something great. And you were right, of course. I think there is something to be said for making something simply because you want that thing to exist.

    Anyway, this post was longer, more pep-talky (you don't actually say you are having any motivational problems at the moment) and more self-pitying than I'd intended. Keep up the good work, Dan.

  5. Thanks, Brook. Re: the figuring-out-the-ground-on-the-way-down, I think that seems a pretty accurate metaphor. A lot of what I'm discovering is that the outcome is rarely a sure thing, nor is the way to reach it. Quite often, I'm finding I have to let go of my need for complete control and planning, and just accept that the way forward is "over there-ish" and hope the actual footholds will be there to support me.

    The good news, though, is that there always seem to be footholds on the way. Some better than others, of course, but I can hardly think of a dead-end or fatal cliff in all the foggy blundering of the past two years. There always seems to be at least one way out with skin intact, and without too much lost labor.

    I guess that could just be luck, but at this point, I think probability is against that much good luck strung together. I think that we're just better at imagining phantom obstacles than we are phantom solutions.

    And you should know that you always had the ability to inspire me. So whether or not Bakay steel ever hits the market, Bakay petrol is certainly a viable alternative :)

    But don't stray too far from getting your hands dirty. I still think we need to make Dungeon Party some day. Or R-Type Party!