Tapping into feds' desire to serve

When it comes to motivating employees, studies show that the messenger matters as much as the message, writes Steve Kelman.

Steve Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

I have long argued that the most underused tool in the government manager’s arsenal is appealing to what scholars call the public service motivation of many civil servants — the desire to help others, make a difference and support the mission of the organization. In fact, I have written that it often seems managers at Frito-Lay are more successful at getting employees to believe in the importance of what they do than many government managers are.

Research has established that there typically are differences between government and private-sector employees in the strength of the desire to serve others and make a difference through one’s job. For example, civil servants are more likely to donate blood than employees of big private firms. Scholars are now investigating whether the presence of public service motivation makes a difference in performance.

The managerial question is not so much the impact of some pre-existing level of public service motivation — although if there is one, it has implications for what kind of people government should be hiring. It is about what managers can do to encourage employees to focus more on their desire to make a difference or awaken such a desire where it is less present. I have long thought it makes sense for managers to talk frequently with employees about the mission in order to remind and inspire them.

However, I recently came across two academic papers that seem to show I have been too optimistic. In a 1998 study, Boas Shamir of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a number of his colleagues asked soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces about various actions of their unit commander and then got data on unit performance from a higher officer. The findings were surprising. The more soldiers reported that their commander had an ideological orientation (e.g., “often refers to national history,” “talks a lot about Zionism” or “refers to values frequently”), the lower the performance of the unit.

In a 2011 paper titled “Outsourcing Inspiration,” Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and David Hofmann of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recount a lab experiment in which three groups of students corrected the grammar and spelling in a research paper written by a student from outside the United States. Two of the groups received identical messages about the importance of the work in helping international students succeed in their studies. But one group received the message from somebody identified as one of the students while the other heard it from a person identified as the project supervisor. The third group received no message.

Participants who heard the message from a student corrected more errors than those who received no message or heard it from a supervisor. The paper presents evidence that supervisors’ messages often aren’t successful because employees distrust their motives, believing the goal is simply to get them to work harder.

Together, these papers suggest that my earlier assumption about the value of mission-oriented messages from managers is too simplistic or perhaps even wrong. They also underscore the good intuition of the contracting leaders at an Army installation I visited a number of years ago. They organized an annual dinner for employees and their families at which the soldiers who use the equipment the contracting folks were buying addressed the employees and explained how that equipment helps them do their jobs.

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