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Performance Equals Motivation Times Ability


There have been several recent columns on Government Executive discussing ideas for improving performance. One suggested the use of Post-It Notes would improve productivity. Another suggested eliminating performance reviews—every manager would love that. Another suggested accountability should be centralized, not decentralized, which is contrary to countless books on high performance. I even saw a reference to the one of the oldest self-help books, The Power of Positive Thinking.

But the prospects for raising performance levels are limited until agencies address two ‘red flag’ issues in the recently released results of the 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Those issues will have to be addressed to raise performance levels.

Psychologists concluded decades ago that employee performance depends on the interaction of two factors—motivation and abilities. The formula is simple and straightforward. We know that well-qualified, motivated people can be expected to perform at higher levels. When motivation and/or abilities decline, performance suffers. Both are heavily influenced by an employee’s immediate manager.

Managers Are the Key to High Performance

It’s been 20 years since the Government Performance and Results Act was enacted. This is the fourth year since it was modernized. A lot of time and money and has been invested in improving performance. The latest plans are discussed in the Performance and Management section of President Obama’s fiscal 2015 federal budget request. After all these years it's clear that GPRA-related practices are not the answer to high performance.

Research as well as the stories of the companies recognized as great places to work confirm that in the right work environment people are committed to their employer’s success and capable of performing at much higher levels. An employer’s human resources policies are important, of course, but managers have more influence on employee performance than any other factor.

That message has been ignored by government. The evidence suggests federal employee motivation has declined significantly, support for employee development is woefully inadequate, and the policies and practices known to contribute to high performance have received minimal attention. Plus the civil service system freezes agencies in a time warp that frustrates efforts to change.

The performance formula suggests organizations should focus on recruiting applicants with the education and personal abilities needed to master job skills. It also argues for adequate training to perform assigned job duties. When training budgets are slashed or qualified job seekers are turned off by an organization’s reputation, performance suffers, often for years if less qualified people are hired.

The mounting dissatisfaction makes it important to take advantage of what we know about motivation. Equity theory argues that people want to be treated fairly and their work effort will depend on the way they are rewarded. Expectancy theory focuses on a somewhat different issue—employee willingness to work hard depends on what they expect. When they are treated unfairly or do not expect their work effort to be recognized and rewarded, their effort and their performance declines.

The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey documents the key issues. Response scores on virtually every question have fallen during the past three years. The report includes a page euphemistically entitled, “Leveraging Results-Oriented Performance Culture.” It reports the results for 13 questions identified as relevant to a performance culture. Not surprisingly scores were down for all but two questions. If there ever was a performance culture, it’s deteriorated.

Preparing Managers to Manage

The lowest survey scores are related to recognition and performance management. Those practices are not dependent on regulations or budgets; they are controlled directly by managers. They are integral to a performance culture. The low scores should be a clarion call to invest in developing more effective managers.

There have been books written about what motivates employees to perform at high levels—the challenge, trust, respect, autonomy and recognition for their contribution. Employees need to know what they have to achieve to be a success. Feedback on their strengths and weaknesses is essential to developing the capabilities. Financial and nonfinancial rewards commonly play a role as well.

Significant performance gains are not going to be realized until the following things happen:

  • Top management makes employee performance management a priority
  • Agencies invest in the development of performance management systems focused on the responsibilities of managers
  • Training is provided to help managers become effective in managing people
  • The selection of new supervisors and managers is based on the personal characteristics that promise a successful transition to the new role and not on their technical skills
  • A manager’s career progress and compensation are linked to performance
  • Ineffective managers are moved back to nonsupervisory positions

Managers have to be accountable for their own performance before they can manage the performance of their staff.

Significantly, the books on high performance do not mention the human resources office. The focus is on day-to-day management practices. Managers are the key to improved performance.

Howard Risher is an independent compensation and performance management consultant. He was the managing consultant for the studies leading to the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act. He is the author or co-author of five books, including Planning Wage and Salary Programs (WorldatWork Press, 2009).

(Image via madpixblue/

Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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