Understand the motivation to work

Federal managers looking to get the most out of their employees need to understand what motivates them, says Josh Bersin, president and chief executive officer of Bersin and Associates. Point one: It's not about the money.

FCW: What motivates federal workers?
Bersin: People in the federal government are there because they believe in the mission. More and more there is a tendency for young people to look at working in the government as part of their long-term, personal career development. People aren’t joining the federal government because they want to retire there. They’re joining it as a stepping stone to something else. You’re likely to get ambitious, bright and highly educated people if they look at it as part of their career instead of their entire career.

From federal surveys, it is the same as in the corporate world — people want to grow. They don’t want to do the same job year after year and not see personal growth, usually in some form of increase or change in responsibilities, an opportunity to do new things and meet new people and to participate in new projects. You could call it career development or just good management. Another motivator is having a good manager who cares about them.

Some data shows that federal employees are inspired by their top executives, but they’re not inspired by their managers or direct supervisors. The only way that works is if the entire organization values managers for their managerial role, not for their role as a contributor. This is true in business. You’ll have, for example, a salesperson promoted to the director of sales. They’ll think that their job is to sell more. It’s not. It is to develop, coach, support and align the people working for them. It’s a completely different job. If the top management doesn’t reinforce the fact that they expect managers and supervisors to do different things, then they don’t inspire and develop people.


FCW: How can government better motivate its employees?
Bersin: Pay attention to the mid-level management roles.
Make sure that they are great people, that they are directed to take care of the people and not just the projects. Inspiration goes a long way, so communicating the value of the mission and creating some kind of score card or measures to get aligned with and then provide development opportunities for people.

It has a profound effect because it makes people realize that they are important, and it forces the organization to evaluate people and decide what development opportunities are needed. It shows an investment in that area and allows you to hire people who may not have all the skills they need yet, but they can get them.

With research we’ve done in the corporate world, companies that spend more money on employee development perform better. We’ve seen it over and over again.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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