By Steve Kelman

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How can we motivate feds without monetary incentives?

coworkers at computer (SFIO CRACHO/

Are there ways to motivate employees to work harder and perform better other than through monetary incentives?

Companies widely use monetary incentives, of course, but there is a paucity of such tools in government, and, in a common view, this difference dooms government to mediocre (or worse) employee performance. (I refer here to performance-based contingent incentives, not base salary levels.) Since, for better or worse, such a lack of monetary incentive tools in government is unlikely to change, there has been interest among public management scholars in whether there are alternative ways to improve effort and performance that don't require cash.

One idea has been that specific, ambitious performance measures in an organization can improve performance – in line with the enormous body of academic research that demonstrates convincingly that providing employees with a challenging goal generates better employee performance than simply saying "do your best."

Two other, very similar approaches are to appeal to what is often called "public service motivation" among many government employees – a desire they already have to serve society – and to communicate to employees an inspiring vision for what the organization is trying to do.

If employees are motivated by helping society or by realizing an attractive organizational vision, they may well do a better job even without monetary incentives. But there remains the question of how such attitudes can be activated or created so they can motivate employees in these ways. Are there management approaches federal supervisors and leaders can use to do so?

In a fascinating and important article in the latest issue of the scholarly journal Public Administration Review , Ulrich Jensen of Arizona State University, Donald Moynihan of the University of Wisconsin, and Heidi Salmonsen of Aarhus University in Denmark provide some neat evidence that there is such an approach. They argue that communicating an inspiring vision improves employee motivation, and – more originally and more importantly – that some ways of communicating such a vision work notably better than others.

What the research specifically examines is the impact of communicating an inspiring vision on what public administration scholars have called "mission valence," an employee's "perception of the attractiveness or salience of the organization’s purpose." In turn the idea is that the more attractive an employee finds the organization’s purpose, the better they will perform. (There is some research evidence for such a view, though I would not characterize it as airtight.)

For this study the researchers gathered data from employees at Danish daycare centers, schools, and tax administration offices and from their supervisors. They asked employees to what extent their manager, for example, "concretizes a clear vision for the[ organization's] future" or “strives to clarify for the employees how they can contribute to achieving the [organization's] goals."

They also asked managers what different techniques they used to communicate the inspiring vision. They wanted to see whether different communication techniques for the vision had different impacts on employee mission valence, a question that to my knowledge has not been investigated before. The technique they were most-interested in examining was the use of oral face-to-face dialogue, of which examples were regular meetings with employees in small teams or meetings where employees were asked to give recent examples of behaviors contributing to realizing the organization's vision. (The other alternative ways of communicating presented to the managers were one-way oral communication, where the leader presented information to the staff orally, but staff had little chance to interact. A third was two-way written communication, such as an Intranet permitting email feedback. The last was one-way written communication, such as newsletters.)

Note that information on employee-perceived mission valence was gathered from the employees themselves, while information on what approaches managers used to communicate ideas about how the organization’s vision was inspiring was gathered from the managers.

Getting data about questions such as these from more than one source is a research best practice, since if you got information on both mission valence and managerial techniques from either just employees or just managers, the data could well be skewed by whether the employee or the manager had a high mission valence.

Since the researchers wanted to find the effect of various kinds of managerial communication on mission valence, they measured employee mission valence at the beginning of the research and then a year later, so they could examine changes over time in mission valence. It is similarly a research best practice for measuring the impact of an intervention to measure both before and after the intervention, since if you measure only once you can’t really measure the impact of the intervention as opposed to underlying factors influencing the level of the phenomenon being measured.

The researchers found that the more employees perceived that their manager concretizes a clear vision or clarifies how employees can contribute to that vision, the higher the employee's mission valence. However, to me the more-interesting finding was on the differential impacts of different communication techniques. They found that the more the manager used oral face-to-face communication to get across their message as opposed to other approaches, the greater the impact on employee attitudes, in this case mission valence.

There was a final interesting result of the research. These positive effects of goal communication dialogue were limited to modest-size workplace units with fewer than 30 employees. At larger workplaces, oral face-to-face communication didn't further increase the impact of mission valence. This underscores the idea that for actually getting employees motivated by an inspiring vision, rich communication in a face-to-face environment helps a lot.

This paper deserves serious attention from practitioners as well as scholars. I have blogged in the past -- including a 2016 post also based on data from Denmark -- about ways that managers can improve employee performance without using monetary incentives. Interventions based on making use of employee commitment to helping society or an otherwise appealing organizational vision use one of the few areas where government actually has an advantage over the private sector in motivating people.

Such findings are important for federal managers, who generally lack access to monetary incentives – and are examples of how academic research can have practical value. In one of the earlier posts reporting on such research, I noted that "although not totally definitive, these results are dramatic enough -- especially considering the near-costlessness of the intervention -- to be worthy of being tried by federal managers."

The finding that oral face-to-face communication is noticeably more effective in getting a message across has significance far beyond just communication about an inspiring mission -- it has significance for most potential managerial interventions in the workplace. To some readers, this finding may not seem surprising, but there are a lot of assumptions out there about what works and doesn’t that are not backed up by evidence, and in my view providing actual evidence for what some might regard as common sense is an important contribution that provides practical, well-supported guidance for managers. It is worth the effort to invest in more high-touch forms of employee communication compared to more low-touch or passive ones. Newsletters are not enough.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jun 26, 2018 at 6:23 PM


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