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

Beyond the Bonus

Private sector managers are struggling with the inability to give the raises and bonuses they used to rely on to motivate and reward high-performing employees. Federal managers have always had to be a little more creative in this arena, and have a number of options to keep employees engaged and feeling challenged and content.

Mike Periu, a business and finance expert and founder of EcoFin Media, has written extensively about alternatives to pay raises to motivate employees. On his website,, he says the three factors that enhance employee's performance are autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy does not mean that managers let employees run amok, but rather they avoid micromanaging and send the message that they trust employees' judgment. The goal, Periu says, is to reassure employees that you feel they are competent to handle responsibility and that they can apply their effort and thinking to the problem at hand.

Mastery means continual improvement in a specific area, with the goal of "eventual domination over a specific set of tasks or skills," Periu says. The thinking here, he says, is the better employees are at doing something, the more they will enjoy it.

Purpose is the sense that what an employee is working on is part of something larger and more important than that employee or that particular task.

In many ways, the federal government has an edge on the private sector in addressing these factors, especially purpose. With even the most mundane task, managers can reinvigorate their employees by tying that task to the office's mission, or even that of the parent agency. And employees who come up with cost savings or efficiency ideas, for example, should be reminded that they did more than come up with a good idea at work -- they saved taxpayer dollars and demonstrated the federal government's commitment to being a good steward of those dollars.

These factors tie in to one another. An employee who has a clear and constant sense of purpose is more likely to be successful without excessive managerial oversight, allowing everyone to feel comfortable granting him or her greater autonomy. And doing tasks without constant direction, supervision or micromanagement certainly is going to lead to greater mastery of those tasks.

Two other tried-and-true methods of motivating employees and increasing productivity that Periu suggests are telework and training. The federal government, so far, has shied away from framing telework as a reward, but there is no question that it allows employees a greater sense of autonomy and demonstrates managers' trust in the employee's self-motivation and sense of purpose. Training, on the other hand, increases autonomy by providing employees with a sense of control over their career development and, of course, puts them on the road to mastery. has a helpful roundup of training opportunities and venues for federal workers. Make it available to your employees and encourage them to request the opportunity to attend sessions and programs that interest them.

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

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