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4 Ways to Boost Morale—Even When Incentives Are Scarce

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I’ve never seen morale this low in my 13 years of government service. What are some fun and creative ways my office can boost morale and try to have a good time?--Anonymous

There is no doubt that morale in the federal government is low. The Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey provides at least one quantitative way to measure issues like morale. The 2013 survey indicates a drop in every governmentwide measure of employee satisfaction, compared with the results of the previous year’s survey.

In reading the survey, I was drawn especially to the Employee Engagement Index Trends (Page 48), which indicate that the governmentwide score (64) is the lowest in four years. If this was a test score, then the government would receive a “D” for engagement. While some agencies are better (receiving a C) and some are worse (receiving an F), the overall measurements paint a gloomy picture for morale.

If the problem is well-known then what can you do as a leader to boost morale? Are fun and creative ways available to help?

Morale describes enthusiasm, confidence and loyalty toward a job or organization. Good morale typically is associated with an esprit de corps and a positive psychological outlook and well-being that make a job and a community more enjoyable. This is good not only for the individual, but also for the organization.

Morale is important to an organization because of its association with performance, productivity, attendance and retention. A variety of studies indicate that a drop in morale lowers performance, degrades productivity, increases absenteeism, and makes it difficult to attract and retain the most talented employees. The converse also is true -- high morale benefits the organization in many dimensions

Improving low morale is a challenge for any organization, but it’s especially challenging for the federal government. With political polarization, budget battles and increasing pressures on public servants, improving morale among federal workers is difficult. But it’s not impossible.

One approach is to think about fun and creative things to do to boost morale, But that could head you in the wrong direction. Morale declines when people feel alone and hopeless, like they are facing an abyss with no support and no escape. Fun and creativity alone are unlikely to change these feelings. Morale improves when people repeatedly are reminded and shown that others care about them and that the abyss will not swallow them up. While I am sure many different approaches can help, I have found four actions particularly effective, especially in a government context in which incentives, competition and gifts are constrained and highly regulated.
  1. Listen to employees and inquire about their ideas, concerns and opinions. Ask them what would make their environment better, happier and more productive given that the broader environment is beyond your control. Discover those things that you can do together to make your environment a bright hilltop in an otherwise overcast landscape.
  2. Look for positive actions, conversations and outcomes among your colleagues and subordinates. Everyday people do great things, whether it’s adroitly handling a difficult conversation, making a gracious decision to support a co-worker, or serving the public well. Invest in discovering these positive efforts.
  3. Appreciate your colleagues and employees. You can do so by thanking them for their positive efforts. You can recount their efforts -- their stories -- to others, which not only provides recognition but also sets the standard for what should be the norm. A “thank you” and stating that you appreciate their contributions and leadership let’s them know they are not alone in an abyss.
  4. Lead by listening, looking and appreciating, and encouraging others to do the same. Be wisely optimistic. Realistically recognize the difficulties of the moment, but also highlight what the team is doing and why it matters -- and assure folks that the dark clouds eventually will lift. When community members show mutual respect and esteem for each other and their contributions to the mission then morale will grow bright, even if the broader environment is hostile to morale.

Fun and creative ideas will naturally surface if morale is improving. These four actions are based on the idea that morale is strongly affected by the immediate relationships around you. If those relationships are positive and supportive then even on the darkest of days your office and your team can be a bright spot that rises above the gloom.

Duce a mente

(May you lead by thinking)

Jackson Nickerson is the Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, the Associate Dean and Director of the Brookings Executive Education, and a Senior Scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. An award winning researcher and teacher, Jackson specializes in leadership, strategic and critical thinking, leading change, and innovation. While in a prior life he worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he now advises government agencies, not-for profits, and for-profit businesses on ways to improve performance. He is the author of Leading Change in a Web 2.1 World.

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