How to get the morale mojo back in your federal office

If morale in your office is down, you aren\'t alone. Federal employees across the government tell Federal News Radio they are feeling the same way. We get tips ...

By Julia Ziegler
Web Manager
Federal News Radio

This week, Federal News Radio has been exploring the causes of low morale in the federal workforce. Managers and employees, alike, told us their levels of motivation have been affected greatly by the current two-year pay freeze, “fed bashing” by members of Congress and the public, and ineffective managers.

In an exclusive survey, over one-third of employees responding said nothing their managers are currently doing is building morale at their agencies.

“They are indifferent, demeaning, arrogant, ignorant (of their own profession) and complacent,” wrote one survey respondent.

When asked how well managers at their agencies motivate employees on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being terrible and 10 being excellent, 56 percent of federal employees gave their managers a score of 1-3, while only 10 percent gave managers a score between 8-10.

That might be because managers say they are unmotivated themselves. In Federal News Radio’s survey, 65 percent of federal managers indicated their morale level somewhere between 1-5, while only 12 percent listed their morale from 8-10.

So, with managers and employees both feeling unmotivated, how can the situation improve at agencies? In order to fix morale, it’s helpful to know where it comes from in the first place.

Quick Tips for Motivating Your Workforce:

  • Set expectations and goals.
  • Set the example. Managers must be motivated too.
  • Find ways to show your appreciation. Something small can go a long way.
  • Make work meaningful.
  • Be fair with pay, benefits, and opportunities for employees.
  • Make room for growth, ideas, and creativity.
  • Communicate and listen to employees.
  • Be open and honest.

“We know through research that motivation is intrinsic. It is not imposed, it comes from within,” said John Baldoni, president of Baldoni Consulting, a coaching and leadership development firm. “It’s an adoption of behaviors. We motivate ourselves because we want to achieve something.”

But, managers have a big effect on employee morale too, according to Tim Urdan, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University.

“If you talk to people about why they’ve left jobs in the past, it often boils down to a bad relationship with their direct manager…I think managers can have a lot of effect on motivation.”

Urdan said managers can start to change the atmosphere in their offices by making the work meaningful; making room for employee growth, ideas and creativity; and trying to make things fair when it comes to pay, benefits and the opportunities employees are given.

Robin Wink, owner of Rudman Wink Associates, a training company for federal employees, said it’s also important for managers to set expectations and goals, set the example, and find ways to show appreciation for employees on a daily basis. She said staff meetings are a great place to do this.

“You’re actually putting your unit’s goals and missions on display by what you’re thanking or appreciating. It’s as much about everyone else hearing these are the kinds of things we should keep doing, as it is, additionally, for the person who gets the praise in person.”

What might come as a surprise to some, Urdan said, is that little things, like a “thank you,” can sometimes be more effective than a monetary bonus.

“There’s pretty good evidence out there that making money the primary motivator generally doesn’t work. I mean, it works if you’ve got a really boring job that doesn’t require a lot of critical thinking or problem solving…but if you have a job that involves some sort of critical thinking or problem solving aspect to it, putting all of the incentives into money can actually have an undermining effect. It can make people more conservative in their thinking and it can make them less creative in their problem solving.”

Michael Kane, Energy Dept.

As for dealing with their own motivational problems, Michael Kane, the chief human capital officer at the Energy Department and the 2011 CHCO of the Year, said managers should look to the mission and the work being done at the agency to help rejuvenate their spirits.

“One of the things that works for me, personally, is I get out of my office and I go walk around the building. And I’ll walk into an area where I know there’s program activity going on – whether it’s good program activity or bad program activity. I’ll say, ‘What are you guys working on here? How are you working?’ And I will engage them in a discussion. And, what I find is, when I get down in those programs around people who are connected to that mission, that improves my morale because I start looking at the things they’re doing and that reminds me why I’m here and what awesome abilities there are in the federal government, what awesome things they’re doing on behalf of people, but more importantly what my responsibility is. It clarifies back for me what I’m responsible for and what I need to deliver.”

What if it doesn’t work?

Despite managers’ best efforts, Baldoni said there will always be some employees that can’t be motivated.

“Frankly, there will be some people, the outliers in your system, that are just there to throw stones and don’t want to participate and only want to gum up the works. You need to find a way to, if you can’t get rid of them, marginalize them so they can’t infect the rest of the team.”

John Baldoni, Baldoni Consulting

Wink said it’s also important for managers to confront unmotivated employees.

“We’ve become a society that isn’t always interested in conversations that involve a level of conflict. Having to say to someone, ‘look, you don’t appear to be motivated’ or ‘the attitude you displayed in our staff meeting last week was really negative and that’s dragging the group down,’ we’re not always comfortable with that conversation and I think we have to have it probably more that we realize.” She said dealing with poor performers is also important so that it doesn’t bring the entire team down.

“In some measure, folks are just not comfortable and prepared to communicate as effectively with their front-line workforce as they should be,” said Tom Fox, vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. “There are folks that are doing an exceptional job and others who are struggling. Now is the time to come out of the shell and really make sure that you are communicating with folks.”

Kane said communicating with employees is one of the most important things managers can do to keep a motivated workforce.

“One of the things we do here is, we do a lot of communication about what’s working well and what’s not working well…It’s about celebrating mistakes. It’s about saying, ‘We discovered something we’re not doing well and we’re on it, and let me tell you what a great thing we’re doing to correct this.’ That translates to employees. It says, ‘You have faith in me, you have value in me. You recognize the fact that I am trying to make this a better process, a better world.”

While there may not be a magic bullet for fixing morale problems in the workplace, experts agree there are many things managers can do on a daily basis to get their offices’ back on the right track.

“You could look at the indicators in terms of negativity around the federal workforce and declining morale, and throw up your hands and feel somewhat helpless or hopeless,” said Fox. “I think, more than anything for federal leaders, now is the time to redouble those efforts and make a commitment to focusing on the fundamentals to make sure that you’re doing all you can, despite that adversity, to keep spirits high.”


Motivating the workforce – it takes two to tango (column)

How the military gets motivation right

Federal morale deeply impacted by pay freeze, fed bashing

Managing morale: lessons from OPM’s John Berry

Pay and Benefits Bill Tracker (chart)

2008-2013 Spending Levels (chart)

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