Revving up the staff isn't easy, but government managers have an edge, if they'll use it.
Motivation, it seems, is about the soft stuff. Bosses, management experts and a mound of surveys agree that money alone won't bring out the best in employees. Instead, it's a mushy stew of good relationships with supervisors, involvement in big projects and important decisions, a sense of mission, an ethical environment, and formal and informal recognition that feeds workers' souls and nourishes productivity. Trouble is, the soft stuff is hard for most managers. Fortunately, government employees often sign up to make a difference, and that can make them more receptive to cheerleading-if it's done right.
Most Americans believe that government employees don't work as hard and are less productive than private sector workers. But Gregory B. Lewis and Sue A. Frank, professors and researchers at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, found a different story when they drilled into data from the 1989 and 1998 General Social Survey from the National Opinion Research Center in Washington. Public servants were more likely than private sector workers to say, "I make a point of doing the best work I can, even if it sometimes does interfere with the rest of my life," Lewis and Frank wrote in a 2004 article in The American Review of Public Administration.
The truth about civil servants' motivation and productivity undoubtedly lies somewhere between the stereotypes and the vows of dedication. "When you talk about a workforce of 1.9 million civilian employees-not counting the military and Postal Service-spread among 80 federal departments and independent agencies, you'll get a wide variability," says John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service in Washington. His group rated the best places to work in government, partly to attract more people to take jobs with Uncle Sam. But the research also gives Palguta and company fodder to preach the message that employees' engagement-their ability to find personal motivation and meaning at work-affects organizational success.
Marc Drizin, director of workforce engagement at Performance Assessment Network in Carmel, Ind., has collected data and divides U.S. workers into the following three categories:
Fully engaged. These people are with an organization because they want to be. They feel they have a good relationship with their bosses, work for ethical organizations and are being trained for the long term. They have friends at the office, and believe that someone in the organization cares about them. Managers can rely on them to take care of the agency's business and stakeholders. According to Robert Tobias, director of the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation at American University in Washington, an engaged workforce increases productivity by 20 percent.
So how do the fully engaged break out? In the private sector, they account for 46 percent of employees, and for federal government, it's 50 percent. "But that still means one out of two federal employees cannot be counted on to do the things that necessarily help their organization meet its mission, vision and values," Drizin says. "Better than lousy is just not where you want to be."
Unengaged. These folks are halfway out the door. They don't like their organizations; they are circulating their résumés, and as a consequence, are putting customer relationships at risk. They also might be acquiring sensitive agency information to take with them when they leave. In the private sector, 31 percent of employees are unengaged. For the federal government, it's 22 percent-the lowest by far of any industry.
Reluctant. These people are loath to work hard, yet they hesitate to leave for a range of reasons, including a belief that their skills are too specialized to find similar work elsewhere, unemployment is high in their field, or the agency chained them with golden handcuffs. "The government does the latter better than anybody else," Drizin says. Tenure for a government employee is 2.5 times greater than the industry average, meaning a federal worker stays in a job for 10.4 years on average, while a private sector worker stays just four.
"Most likely, you've not necessarily found fabulous human resource policies that would engender that difference," Drizin says dryly. "The feds basically pay you to stay. Yes, they have retention . . . because people have to stay, not because they want to. The difference in the verb makes all the difference in whether these employees will work harder, be a team player, go above the call of duty-those actions we want in any industry." In the private sector, 23 percent of workers are reluctant; in government, 28 percent.
The first two categories are no-brainers: Keep the engaged, kick out the unengaged. It's that soft belly in the middle where federal managers flounder, especially since the Supreme Court has declared that due process is required when separating federal employees from their positions, says Steve Nelson, director of policy and evaluation at the Merit Systems Protection Board. Replacing the unengaged is easier said than done. The next best solution is to motivate them.
Merit Systems Board Protection surveys show that federal employees trust their immediate supervisors most, but that confidence deteriorates as they move up the chain of command. Even at closer range, employees still can be wary, Nelson adds.
He blames the federal atmosphere for a chunk of that mistrust, pointing out that too many people move into supervisory positions because they were the best at a specific job, not because they exhibited management potential. "We need a little more [emphasis] on the softer managerial skills: conflict resolution; setting reasonable, realistic performance expectations; clearly articulating the organizational goals; finding solutions to problems; adapting to changing circumstances," Nelson says. These are in the top of the 60 important soft-side abilities he has uncovered.
In his opinion, the most vital managerial skill is the ability to transmit performance expectations. It's eight times more powerful than other strategies for engaging employees, Nelson says. Scratch a bit deeper and you find it's based on communication. "That's why a number of years ago many places went to written performance standards," he says. But written criteria aren't the be-all and end-all.
"When I talk with employees from other agencies, it's interesting how few of them use a performance feedback session as a tool for themselves," says Chris Mihm, managing director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, which researchers often cite as a model in the motivation field. "A lot of systems don't give people permission to say, 'Here's what I need from you, boss.' That is absurd. You have to have the two-way stuff." What's more, he says, it needs to be continuous, not just during a formal feedback moment.
"Imagine back through your own career," Mihm says. "The times that you have been the most motivated, the most energized about coming in to work on a Monday morning have been those times when you had a sense that what you were working on was big, important and valuable. And it was probably some of the hardest work you did, some of the most stressful, but you were still juiced because it was something you clearly understood."
Take, for example, the efforts of Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Va., to embrace lean manufacturing-a method of consolidating work flow and eliminating wasteful processes. The goal is a short cycle time, à la Toyota's famous automobile production system. According to Darryl Perkinson, the shipyard's supervisory training specialist and the national vice president of the Federal Managers Association, bosses took a tremendous step by asking employees for input on how to rethink processes. "That point of engagement somehow magnifies the result exponentially. Once employees see what they've done is worth something, it energizes them to think of more things to do," Perkinson says. During the past year, the yard has saved several million dollars thanks to this exercise. Of course, Perkinson admits, because of the facility's size, not everyone is on board. "But even if we're making baby steps, it's worth it to engage folks," he says.
Drizin emphasizes that personal relationships between employees and supervisors are critical drivers of engagement. His research also supports the notion of matching employees with the right agencies and jobs. But he also calls attention to a third set of drivers: ethics, diversity and safety. Only six in 10 federal workers say they feel their organization is highly ethical, and that disturbs him. "There's a bit of 'What would Jesus do?' when employees are faced with ethical dilemmas. Ethics is a top down, not a bottom up process, so if they think their leaders would put short-term concerns in front of long-term results, they will, too," Drizin says.
Palguta advises managers seeking to motivate their employees not to shrink from making difficult demands. The Office of Management and Budget made the Partnership's list of best places to work, even though it operates with only 500 employees and its visibility brings high expectations. "You can't stay there unless you are really engaged in the work mentally and in terms of devoting time and effort," he notes. "You produce, or you need to find some other place to work. I don't mean that in a threatening sense; it's just the fact of life there. People love it.
"Fear of being fired isn't a great motivator. That's the way you keep people from straying off the reservation and chained to their desk. Real engagement comes from the fact that I have a real job, real responsibilities, making good use of my skills and what I do is important to accomplish the mission," Palguta adds.
He also likes to get in a plug for what he calls mission matching-assessing and selecting the best people who fit with a specific agency. "Clearly, you can have wonderful leaders with all the great characteristics, but if you don't have employees capable of doing the job, that isn't going to work," Palguta says. "You can't hook up the tiny dog to a sled and try to win the Iditarod."
The Energy Department scored higher than average on the Office of Personnel Management's 2004 Federal Human Capital Survey, particularly when it came to answering questions such as "How well are my talents used" and "How satisfied am I in the work I'm doing." Deputy Chief Human Capital Officer Claudia Cross credits this to the fact that Energy makes its expectations clear from the top down. The secretary and the deputy hold staff meetings once or twice a week with senior managers to go over very specific messages about their expectations. "Not just programmatic issues, responding to Congress and those things, but 'Here's how we treat people. Here's what I expect performance management to be all about in the department,' " Cross explains.
And that's merely one facet. The other secret, she says, lies in giving junior-level employees the opportunity to influence big situations. After all, most employees gravitate toward federal positions because they're motivated to serve. Why not take advantage of that trait? Energy's formal mentoring program matching newcomers with veterans has many participants. The department's leadership program for promising new hires includes interviewing executives and tackling real-life challenges, which take the employees out of their comfort zones and into new thinking and decision-making situations.
Empowering junior staffers certainly worked in Cross' case. Her family tree doesn't include a single federal worker. She was the first when she was hired as an intern at the Navy's human resources division in 1975. In her second week on the job, she was allowed to talk to admirals about an important issue on the table. "I had a grown-up next to me, but I was at the table!" she says. "I had assumed I would shadow someone, but never that I'd be a point person. I started creating relationships right off the bat, and that's pretty heavy stuff when you're right out of college.
"I was hooked," Cross adds. She has just celebrated her 30th year in government. Among the employees at the GS-9 levels whom she has championed for the leadership program, none has failed. "And the stuff they come up with . . . it's amazing," she says. For instance, one team worked with the general counsel to develop ways to get private companies to subsidize programs for minority students who otherwise would not get any exposure to federal work. It's currently in its fourth year and expanding to other agencies.
According to Rosslyn Kleeman, who heads the Coalition for Effective Change, a nonpartisan alliance of associations in Washington that represents federal managers, executives and professionals, and teaches a graduate class in workplace skills at The George Washington University, the more rewards, the better. And she's not talking about salary. Kleeman says, for example, that she would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn't enjoy seeing his name in a weekly e-mail, or plastered in a publication at the office. What's more, a provision in federal law allows managers to give people time off for outstanding performance. "But it's hardly ever used," she notes.
Perhaps that's because federal managers have doubts about the motivating power of rewards. Only 30 percent of respondents to OPM's 2002 Federal Human Capital Survey agreed with the statement, "Our organization's awards program provides me with an incentive to do my best." A depressing 45 percent flat-out disagreed. Drizin's research isn't any cheerier: Slightly more than half of federal employees believed they were treated with respect and appreciation. "So it's not surprising that less than one in two feel fully engaged," he says.
Yet Reginald Wells, chief human capital officer and deputy commissioner at the Social Security Administration, has no intention of axing his rewards programs. Currently, his agency is expected to increase productivity by at least 2 percent per year-a goal it has exceeded consistently this decade. Meanwhile, SSA hosts an annual gala to honor its best and brightest. The faces change each time.
"If they didn't, it would probably start to be less effective," Wells admits. "I think the impact lies in it being a quality event. It's not about offering flashy plaques, but making [em-ployees] feel special, getting their photos taken with the commissioner." During the Washington shindig, Commissioner's Honor Awards are presented for individual accomplishments, group accomplishments and length of service. Throughout the year, headquarters and field offices host employee recognition events, and managers and supervisors are encouraged to run with those spur-of-the-moment thank-you mementos.
For Palguta, a reward program's success doesn't hinge on such details. Instead, it's all in whether you recognize people who truly deserve the extra attention. And recognition should not be confined to tangible rewards. "When I was a manager, I used to tell my supervisors that it wasn't hard to find someone screwing up to jump on. My challenge was to catch people in the act of doing something good and give them a verbal pat on the back," he says. Without the informal, the fancy awards ceremony won't offer a good return on investment. "If I had to choose between the two, I'd take the daily positive communications," Palguta adds.
Energy's Cross chose exactly that when she championed the popular FISH! philosophy, a motivational program that hinges on having fun at the office. The program goes far deeper than merely playing, of course, or it wouldn't have survived eight years in the private sector at $850 per training session. It walks participants through important daily practices in the workplace: Be there, play, make their day and choose your attitude.
Cross sees this as permission to keep rubber balls and chocolate at her desk. "I refuse not to have fun, because it would just zap too much of my spirit away. To be creative, I think you have to be a little crazy, and having fun will give you those kinds of pop ideas that don't come into your head when you're thinking linearly," she explains. She even presented the FISH! video at a conference of fellow HR and training directors, some of whom went on to implement it. Still, the government doesn't have a reputation as a fun, playful atmosphere among potential employees.
Perkinson's shipyard is working to change that. He, too, believes private sector motivation gimmicks have their place in the federal arena. When a team at Norfolk enjoys a success, employees celebrate with a picnic. After a successful overhaul, they shoot off an old ship's gun as a salute. "These activities work well and we do them a lot," he says.
Count MSPB's Nelson among the advocates of fun, but only as long as managers keep the real goal in sight. "There has to be a feeling that what you're doing matters," he says.
Julie Sturgeon is an Indianapolis-based journalist with 20 years of professional writing experience in business and trade.