Many times leaders will ask themselves how they can tell the morale of their troops. Sure signs of bad morale are easy to spot. We see slumped shoulders, people looking at their shoes, people not picking up after themselves and generally not caring about their equipment or their area.
These may easy to spot in the military. For example the unit that was at the centre of some of the US atrocities in the Iraq war did not have good discipline records. Their base camp was messy and officers did not show command and soldiers did not show respect. In short the lack of control allowed bad things to happen.
The same can be said in business. If workers are not taking care of the details, large problems can occur. At the same time if line managers are not engaging, the workers can see this as a sign their behaviour is tolerated or condoned. Leaders have to step in and address the issues for both workers and managers.
So what does this have to do with the photocopier?
The photocopier is a good barometer especially if it is in a communal area where people cannot be seen to use it. Why? People will take out their frustrations on the machine when no one is watching. They will slam doors, yank on the handles and generally beat up on it. The more it breaks down the more likely your morale is low.
The photocopiers and printers in offices will have a better repair and maintenance record. This is not simply because they are watched. They are also seen as belonging to someone rather than to the company and therefore abstract. This is not the tragedy of the commons issue, though, either. Everyone knows that the photocopier belongs to the comapny and that others rely upon it. Thus when damaging it and beating up on it they know that it will affect others. At the same time it is more likely to be used by frontline teams and workers. If they are not supportive of the mission they are not going to take care of the equipment. As a result their behaviours, disrepair, unwillingness to care for it, and disregard for the organisation’s property show how far they are disassociating themselves from the comapny.
Thus, a quick check of your maintenance costs and photocopier repair records may be a good barometer of the morale in your unit, service, or the whole company. You can also use it to check whether your direct reports are communicating bad (critical) news upward. If they keep insisting morale is fine and the repair record is high, you may need to ask some searching questions and consider the morale may be lower than you realize if direct reports cannot tell you how bad it morale is.
So, the next time you make a photocopy or print you may be indicaing more than you realize.