How to inspire government employees

Stewart Liff

Consultant and author Stewart Liff argues that dealing with problem employees head-on can go a long way toward improving performance and morale throughout a team.

There's good news and bad news when it comes to managing and motivating government employees, according to consultant and author Stewart Liff.

On the plus side, 97 percent of feds are willing to put in extra effort, 84 percent enjoy their work, 91 percent feel their work is important, and 91 percent constantly look for ways to do a better job, according to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

On the negative side, government employees reported little connection between performance and rewards in their work units, with a measly 34 percent saying differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way. Just 34 percent said promotions are based on merit, 29 percent felt poor performers are dealt with and 22 percent believed raises depend on how well employees perform.

"Employee satisfaction or dissatisfaction is generally a function of what their managers do or don't do," Liff told an audience at the ASTD 2014 International Conference on May 5. "If we could only make those supervisors better, we'll have more engaged and committed workers."

The fact that only 43 percent of survey respondents said their leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment is a huge opportunity to improve the situation, said Liff, author of "Managing Government Employees" and co-author of "A Team of Leaders." Changing the dynamic is a function of the manager's approach, communication systems, the fairness of management systems, employee dynamics and the manager's skill in dealing with difficult employees.

"The way you look at government employees to a large extent is a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said. He encouraged managers to start with the assumption that most people want to do a good job and look at systems before blaming employees for any problems. For instance, if three employees seem to have performance problems and they all have the same supervisor, there could be a problem with the boss.

When it comes to communication, it's important to explain the big picture to employees so they don't fill any gaps in information with rumors. Managers should also give feedback and teach in many different ways because people have a variety of learning styles.

When Liff worked for the government, he was detailed to a Department of Veterans Affairs office and began his first day by introducing himself to the staff. When he got to the mail room, the employees seemed alarmed and asked what was wrong. They'd only seen previous directors once a year for their bonus checks.

That's a practice guaranteed to limit honest communications and feedback and impair employee dynamics. "They're only going to trust you if they see you're there," Liff said.

Furthermore, management systems must be integrated and applied consistently. Most important, poor performers must be dealt with immediately. In another position, Liff posted employees' performances publicly, though he withheld their names. Within three months, that unit's performance had doubled.

"All of a sudden, nobody could hide any more," he said. "We had upward peer pressure."

To improve employee dynamics, managers must be sensitive and pay attention to whomever they are speaking with. Liff also advised managers not to take things personally and not to be afraid to take decisive action. The top-performing employees want to work for a winning organization and will become discouraged and disengage if there are no consequences for poor performers.

"It's so crucial that we deal with our problem employees" and not perpetuate the problem by moving or promoting them, Liff said. "People for decades have bought into the myth that you can't deal with a difficult employee."

His guidelines for doing so are:

  1. Enlist the participation of the management team and all advisers, including human resources and legal counsel.
  2. Identify the problem employee and develop a strategy for getting him or her back on track.
  3. Take strong action and deal with the problem as soon as possible.
  4. Recognize that it's better to occasionally lose than never take action and allow poor performers to erode morale from the inside.
  5. Use probationary periods to avoid bringing problem employees onto your team.

"If you go weak, weak, weak, no one's going to take you seriously," Liff said. He added that only 20 percent of government employees who have been fired file an appeal, and 40 percent of those cases are settled. That leaves only 12 cases out of 100 going to arbitration, which favors management 85 percent of the time.

"Your odds of that firing being overturned [are] about 3 or 4 percent," he said. "Doing the right thing sometimes means firing someone."

To be sure, the first obligation is to try to turn around a poor performer, but the bottom line is that the manager must deal with the situation, not ignore it or shuffle the person to another division.

"If we could do that one thing well and good, that would change everything," Liff said. "You'll have to take fewer actions to deal with poor performers because people will see that you're serious."

About the Author

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning journalist who covers money, careers and technology. A regular contributor to Fortune magazine online, she has also written for Bloomberg Businessweek, the New York Times, Slate and the Washington Post Magazine. Find her on Twitter at @KatherineLewis.


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