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When Morale Wanes, Remember Why You Became a Public Servant

Dr. Reginald Wells, Chief Human Capital Officer at SSA, on how to motivate employees during hard times.

These are turbulent times. We face a plethora of challenges--budget cuts, shrinking workforces, pay freezes, increasing workloads, negative rhetoric about federal employees, their work ethic and their value to the public. Without proper attention to our employees’ morale, we will be hard-pressed to weather the turbulence successfully. 

From my perspective, it all begins at the top. Leadership must set the tone by communicating service expectations and offering transparency about the nature of problems affecting the agency and its workforce. At the Social Security Administration (SSA), agency leadership has been extremely attentive to the information needs of employees. The messages we convey give as much insight as possible--offering encouragement to all those who are working hard to fulfill the mission.

While communication strategies need not be elaborate, it is sometimes necessary to go beyond typical methods. For example, I recently initiated monthly brown bag luncheons, allowing employees to come together in an intimate setting to discuss issues important to them with my deputy and me. The feedback was extraordinary and those who attended expressed tremendous gratitude for our sensitivity to their concerns and our willingness to be as accessible as possible. When public servants have any doubt about the relevance of their role or the importance of their work on behalf of the American public, they have only to return to the source of their decision to become public servants.

It means remembering that they became public servants because they wanted to make life better for people and, in the case of the SSA, to ensure that people receive their retirement benefits or desperately needed disability or survivor benefits. That is often more than enough motivation to reenergize and strengthen their engagement and commitment. Understanding the importance of the particular role you play in a noble cause is always a transforming and validating experience.

Dr. Reginald Wells, Deputy Commissioner for Human Resources and the Chief Human Capital Officer at the Social Security Administration (SSA), was a panelist for the discussion on “Breakthrough Practices for Increasing Employee Motivation” at Excellence in Government Live on Sept. 6, 2012.

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