By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

A management tool available to all government managers

Shutterstock image (by Nata-Lia): email concept.

Last week, in the wake of one of the series of winter storms from hell that have spooked Boston recently -- perhaps even blog readers outside the U..S have seen the pictures of our street curbs under six feet (two meters) of snow -- the following brief email blast appeared in my inbox, addressed to all Harvard Kennedy School faculty and staff, from our dean, David Ellwood:

Dear HKS Community,

I know that the unusually cold and seemingly endlessly snowy winter weather has made everything more difficult these last few weeks. Many of you have made heroic efforts to get to work and class. I just want to say thank you for your dedication and determination. This certainly has been a winter to remember.

It is always an honor to be part of this remarkable community. I look forward to a lively and eventually lovely Spring.

My immediate reaction on reading this email was to stand in admiration of our dean's thoughtfulness and concern. It made me proud to be part the Kennedy School and renewed my eagerness to contribute as best I can. Then I thought about it a bit, and realized there was a much larger point here.

Government managers frequently complain about the lack of management tools they have available, especially compared with private-sector managers, to influence the performance of those working for us. It's much harder to hire, promote and especially fire in government than in industry. Government managers also generally have few financial rewards to make available for top-performing employees.

Yet there is nothing Ellwood did with his email that every government manager in the world could not also do if they choose. The management tool he employed was simply showing employees' the organization's concern and appreciation for them, and connecting things employees do with the organization's mission -- particularly the ways that organization serves society.

Using this tool costs no scarce agency dollars. No restrictive personnel rules stop it or even make it harder. Using the tool will hardly subject the manager to media or political attack. It's just an email, thoughtfully composed.

Furthermore, think for a moment how short the dean's message was. Once he came up with the idea to send this message in the first place, I am guessing it took him only a minute or two to compose.

And yet, when I received the message, it intuitively motivated me to try to do my job as well as I could.

So this is easy to do once a manager sets his or her mind to doing it. The hard thing is to think to use this available tool in the first place. And that's the step I suspect many government managers never take.

There is another piece of good news in this email, though the good news also requires more thought by a manager: One of the problems with the motivating effect of any motivational tool is that it tends to dull with repetition. The first time a manager tells employees how important the organization's mission is, it will likely produce a warm glow in many hearts, and remind people to try their best. But the tenth time the same message is repeated, it is likely to have become background noise to which people are habituated and hence desensitized.

One thing that is very nice about Ellwood's message is that it is adapted to specific circumstances we were facing at this moment in time. So there is not a habituation effect. But that also requires being sensitive to new situations that call for new and different messages, which is more taxing than simply repeating the same mantra again and again.

Still, that's not much to ask of a committed leader. If we don't use some version of this management tool that's readily available to all government managers, we have only ourselves to blame.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 24, 2015 at 1:06 PM


  • IT Modernization
    shutterstock image By enzozo; photo ID: 319763930

    OMB provides key guidance for TMF proposals amid surge in submissions

    Deputy Federal CIO Maria Roat details what makes for a winning Technology Modernization Fund proposal as agencies continue to submit major IT projects for potential funding.

  • gears and money (zaozaa19/

    Worries from a Democrat about the Biden administration and federal procurement

    Steve Kelman is concerned that the push for more spending with small disadvantaged businesses will detract from the goal of getting the best deal for agencies and taxpayers.

Stay Connected