What really engages the federal workforce?

Author:Zauderer, Donald G.

Evidence shows that six intrinsic needs motivate workers. Here are several concrete actions government leaders can take to address these needs--and fully engage the federal workforce.

A recent publication from the Partnership for Public Service, Embracing Change, likens working in federal service to the reality television show Survivor, which follows a group of people who work together to reach specific goals while dealing with every obstacle flung their way. According to the report, the federal workforce also has major hurdles to overcome, such as operating with "outdated hiring laws, across-the-board cuts, widespread employee furloughs; a three-year pay freeze ending with a 1 percent pay increase; and a budget dispute culminating in a 16-day government shutdown."

Further, some politicians continue to fuel deep distrust in government by attacking agencies, hoping to gain votes by demonstrating that government is inherently inefficient and ineffective. Under these conditions, it would be perfectly natural for many eligible public-sector workers to retire, find employment elsewhere, or simply do a reasonable day's work for a reasonable day's pay while seeking real fulfillment outside of work.

So, is there anything well-intentioned public managers can do to engage those they lead to expend their discretionary energy toward achieving organizational purposes, even when very real impediments exist?

Intrinsic Needs and Human Nature

To address the issue of engagement, the Key Executive Leadership Conference for federal leaders held at American University in May 2014 focused on the theme, "The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us." The idea was inspired by the Daniel Pink book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which refers to neuroscience experiments that demonstrate people are motivated by a desire for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Building on Pink's framework, the conference included three additional intrinsic needs that strongly influence people's engagement at work--respect, fairness, and inclusion.

The subject of the conference centered on how federal managers can tap into these six intrinsic needs to engage those they lead. Working in small groups, the conference's 150 managers and executives provided a long list of ideas on how everyday leadership behaviors can tap into these intrinsic needs to generate a high level of sustained engagement. (See Figure 1.)

Highlighting intrinsic needs by no means suggests that extrinsic needs, such as salary, benefits, resources, and working conditions, are not important. Rather, it is simply that intrinsic needs can go a long way toward creating sustained engagement, even when there are discouraging factors in the environment.

Before we explore the six intrinsic needs, it is important to add perspective on an important aspect of human nature. Psychologist William McDougall's work on "The Instinct Theory of Motivation" is particularly relevant. In the early 20th century, he explored the question: "What intrinsic needs and inherent tendencies do human beings have naturally and that help them survive?"

This question suggests that human beings are born with innate biological instincts that are essential for surviving. When these needs are not available to humans, their physical and emotional health is compromised.

What are the instincts and inherent tendencies that relate to engagement at the workplace? We assert that most people become engaged when they are:

* able to exercise discretion in how they do their work

* able to master new knowledge and skills

* involved in work that has a higher purpose

* treated with respect

* treated fairly

* feel a sense of inclusion within their work group and organization.

Figure 1. Six Basic Human Needs 1|Autonom: Desire to be self-directed 2|Mastery: Urge to make progress and get better at what we do 3|Purpose: Want to contribute and be part of something larger than ourselves 4|Respect: Acknowledgement of people's skills, personal qualities, and contributions 5|Fairness: Impulse to compare how people in similar circumstances are treated by others...

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