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Posted by on Sep 19, 2014

Motivation: Using the Right “Carrots” to Reaffirm Valuable Contributions

motivationcarrots-620x330A Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) study released in 2013 revealed that a mere 21% of Federal employees feel their job has the potential to be highly motivating. In other words, 79% of employees feel little-to-no reason to be motivated based on their jobs.

To be clear — this is not about whether employees want to do their jobs, it’s whether employees think their jobs present particularly motivating factors: “Does my job come with good ‘carrots’?”

Motivation is critical for engagement, but with limited budgets and a shrinking workforce, how can your agency drive motivation and increase productivity? What are the “carrots” that you can use to incentivize employees to give their best and know that it counts? This is an area where any management team can benefit from strong human resource analytics.

Recent data tell us that money is not the only thing that employees care about. In fact, when it comes to our jobs, a number of non-monetary rewards can be powerful motivators. The same MSPB study revealed that Federal employees care more about nonmonetary rewards than monetary rewards. Factors such as being included in important agency decisions and being able to serve the public outranked bonuses and opportunity for advancement.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely (current professor at Duke University and cofounder of BEworks) has volumes of research that explain this. His research has demonstrated the fact that meaning is a powerful motivator and drives productivity in the workplace. (See this TED talk for a few examples.)

Although Federal leaders may worry that the inability to give large monetary bonuses in Government diminishes Federal employees’ motivation, Ariely’s research also posits that we can rely on large monetary bonuses to drive activity — but not necessarily productivity. That is, bonuses let people know their employer expects more, but it doesn’t necessarily make them work smarter, contribute better ideas, or innovate agency processes.

To drive performance with limited workforce and shrinking budgets, choose carefully the “carrots” you’ll put on the end of the employment stick. Creative non-monetary rewards can go a long way, so what are some ways you can ensure your rewards programs are optimally effective?

Here are some tips to en sure your “carrots” can boost the motivation potential of working in your agency and drive performance:

  • Link rewards to effort.
    Employees work best when they believe their effort is strongly correlated with the potential for a reward, something fewer than 30% of government employees currently believe. For example, an employee needs to know that additional effort that yields a strong product that aligns beautifully with agency goals will be acknowledged and received in a more positive light than a less amount of effort that “gets the job done” but just barely satisfies an agency goal.
  • Communicate candidly about rewards.
    Whether monetary or non-monetary, make sure employees know what rewards are available and how one can receive them. OPM provides a list of awards for Federal employees. Be aware of what they are and how to nominate a deserving employee, teammate, or leader. Depending on the type of reward and the context, use a variety of channels. Flyers in the break room are appropriate for some; for others, you may want to distribute detailed summaries along with performance review packets.
  • Target only high performance.
    Avoid having rewards become an entitlement. Be clear about the kinds of high performance that merit a reward, and don’t give them out to those who are simply fulfilling job requirements. With nonmonetary rewards, make sure you structure the program so that only superior performance — such as innovative contributions, exceptional efficiencies, or game-changing improvements — merits a reward. The flipside of this is not to treat entitlements as rewards. For example, don’t grant the privilege of telework as though it’s a perk for going above and beyond—employees are either eligible for telework or not eligible — so it’s not a way to acknowledge superior performance.
  • Be fair and equitable.
    This goes back to setting expectations — don’t be cagey with how you justify and distribute rewards. Give them only to those whose performance met the justifications and be transparent about who that includes. For example, if you get one stellar report from each of three teams and each report helps you meet a Cross-Agency Priority goal, give the reward to all three teams or make it clear why one earned it and the other two did not. So that employees don’t become demotivated by feeling let down, it’s always best to communicate thresholds or qualifying metrics in advance.

To make sure that your carrots are what they need to be, continue to collect data on how the rewards are perceived and valued in your agency. Use surveys or interviews to collect information about rewards. You can use the same tools to learn what about the agency’s mission or work might be meaningful to employees, and use that information to shape your rewards programs.

Nonmonetary rewards are motivating for Federal employees, so honing in on which ones are most meaningful, how employees view their jobs, and how rewards impact productivity are key.

How can you increase motivation in your agency? What rewards are available?  Which will be most meaningful in a climate of fiscal austerity and constantly shifting workforce?

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