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Morale Problems? What Would Your Employees Do?

Improving performance starts with winning hearts and minds.

The White House intruder should be a wake-up call across government. When morale declines, so does performance. The Secret Service fiasco is one case in point. Employees become less attentive, easily distracted, unwilling to exert more than the minimum effort, and a few will act out.

There is no reason to believe the situation will improve much any time soon. The civil service system will continue to impede change. There is little chance the pay gap will be closed. And budget cuts will continue to limit workforce investments.

Despite the impediments, it is possible to improve the work experience and boost morale—and to drive improvement at minimal expense. This is documented in the Partnership for Public Service’s report on the best places to work in government. One agency stands out as an unqualified success—the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which climbed steadily from 172 on the list in 2007 to first on the agency subcomponent list in 2013. The U.S. Mint has a similar story.

Agencies cannot overcome every problem. But two core issues must be emphasized: (1) improved morale contributes to improved performance and (2) this can be accomplished at minimal cost. In fact, improved performance should result in a net savings. Everyone wins.

Improved morale cannot be mandated or inspired by an expert’s report. It’s a “hearts and minds” issue, and the solution has to start with agency leaders. They need to acknowledge there are problems and commit to making necessary changes a priority.

Organizational change takes time. It took several years to dig this hole, so leaders need to make a multiyear commitment.

The initiative should start with a baseline assessment of their agency’s current reality, including analyses of employee survey data and rates of turnover, absenteeism, grievances, etc. This will help pinpoint the offices and teams where the problems are most acute and create a shared understanding of the issues.

Open, regular communication from leaders is essential. It builds trust. Realistically, managers and employees already know where the problems are the most serious.

Success rides on the buy-in of managers and employees. No outsider can understand an organization better than its people. They want to see the initiative succeed, since it will result in a more satisfying work experience. There will be skeptics, but they are likely to get on board with early successes.

An effective strategy is captured best in the Partnership’s report: “Turn your employees into your consultants.” They are the experts on their work experience. This is why they often are subject matter experts on projects to develop better practices. Rely on teams of managers and employees to assess problems, assume responsibility for researching alternatives and develop recommendations for change.

This strategy addresses a core concern: Morale problems are more severe when employees feel they have no control over their situation.

With guidance and time for background research (e.g., learning about best practices), there are few problems that can’t be addressed by specified teams of managers and/or employees. For example:

  • Young employees could assess the hiring and onboarding process. Turnover of millennials is a problem.
  • Occupationally defined groups could assess training and development, performance management practices, and recognition/reward practices. Those are common weaknesses across government.
  • Managers could be asked to make recommendations to improve management practices and systems.

A review can be initiated at any level. It should be revisited at year-end to check progress.

At the USPTO, unions served as aggregators of employee interests, according to the Partnership’s report. As agencies tackle problems, unions can take on a quality-control role in overseeing changes and serve as employee champions.

The USPTO’s chief acquisition officer said: “Our goal is to make this the best place to work anywhere, not just in government . . . We want to be just as good as Google.”  That’s a lofty goal, but there is no reason government leaders should stop them from trying.

Howard Risher managed compensation consulting practices for two national firms and has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D. from the Wharton School.

(Image via alphaspirit/