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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Battling the Budget

With Congress -- particularly the deficit reduction super committee -- teeing up to make some difficult decisions about the nation's budget, federal managers are bracing for belt-tightening and preparing to go the distance for their employees. In a recent survey from Government Executive Media Group, managers opened up about how they plan to maintain employee morale even if -- or when -- budgets shrink.

The vast majority of survey respondents -- 81 percent -- believe budgets will shrink in fiscal 2013, and many said their agency leaders already are rolling out the "expect to do more with less" speeches. But federal managers think highly of the programs they work on and said cuts would be bad not only for those programs, but for their employees as well. Managers on average rated their programs at more than an eight on a 10-point scale of public need. And 75 percent of respondents who supervised at least one employee said they were extremely or very concerned that budget cuts would hurt employee morale and productivity.

Those supervisors believe they have few tools at their disposal to motivate employees in the event of budget cuts. Three-fourths said they will use positive recognition to address morale problems and slightly more than half said they would turn to flex schedules and increased transparency.

As frustrated as federal managers are with what they feel is an inevitable budget crunch about which they have little say, they are on the right track in turning to positive recognition to boost morale. Management experts commonly advise private sector supervisors to fight for their employees within the larger organization. Certainly federal managers can promote the importance of their programs and the efficiency of their employees, but thanks to the separation of powers in the government, this tool is largely out of their hands.

Nevertheless, federal managers must take ownership of the environment in their office. It is crucial for them to recognize that even when external factors conspire to undermine morale, they can have an impact. Federal managers can make clear to their employees how much their contributions are valued within the agency and by taxpayers.

Bob Nelson, author of 1,001 Ways to Reward Employees (Workman Publishing Co., 2005), writes that managers who truly believe that recognizing deserving employees plays an integral part in how those workers feel about their jobs have the greatest success with using recognition for motivation. In fact, four of the top 10 categories of motivational activities employees reported to Nelson were forms of praise -- personal praise, written praise, electronic praise and public praise.

Nelson cites the research of Gerald Graham of Wichita State University, who found in multiple studies that employees prefer personalized, instant recognition from their direct supervisors more than any other type of motivation.

Nelson also notes that employees like to be recognized for day-to-day good work with simple compliments. "The best praise is done soon, specifically, sincerely, personally, positively and proactively," he writes. But managers can get the maximum impact by varying the forms of praise and using them all frequently.

Federal managers struggle with giving positive feedback frequently and might be even more reluctant to rely on seemingly small gestures when employees are facing major concerns such as pay freezes. But positive reinforcement is a powerful tool in their arsenal, and federal managers should employ it now more than ever to keep heads held high.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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