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Motivating Federal Employees: Is Pay the Most Important Factor?

Pay is one important factor that individuals consider when searching for employment or assessing their satisfaction with their current job. However, research conducted by the Partnership for Public Service for their annual Best Places to Work rankings indicates that pay is not THE most important factor.

Tom Fox, Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service, spoke with Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER about how federal agency leaders can motivate employees in the age of the persistent pay freeze.

Know what REALLY motivates employees

While many factors are involved in shaping how employees view their workplace, the 2011 Best Places to Work rankings show that the primary factor in the federal workplace is exceptional leadership, followed by a belief by employees that their skills and the work they are doing fits in with their agency’s mission.

Focusing on pay as a motivating factor is not only out of line with what employees believe, it can result in negative consequences. “If anything,” Fox says, “pay is a de-motivator. It can lead to dissatisfaction more than it can lead to satisfaction.” Pay freezes, along with recent research that shows that federal employees are underpaid, make it an even more powerful de-motivator.


So what can leaders of federal agencies do to motivate their employees? They can start by listening.

Listen, listen, listen

Leaders should be open and honest about the pay situation and should follow up with employees to discuss what motivates them. These interactions not only allow leaders to gain important knowledge about their employees, they also help build trust by showing that leaders care about their employees. Listening to employees can also provide information about how to navigate the turbulent times ahead.

Provide feedback

Agency leaders should provide employees with feedback on a regular basis. According to Fox, “now is the perfect time for federal leaders to have one-on-one conversations with their employees about expectations, performance and results, as well as offer feedback and coaching to help them continuously improve and succeed.”

Managers can prepare for these conversations by asking themselves five key questions:

Have you prepped for a performance review like you would for a meeting with your agency head ?

Have you been crystal clear about expectations ?

Have you identified your employees’ strengths and weaknesses?

Is your feedback specific enough?

What suggestions can you offer for an employee to improve?


Fox provides more detail about each question in his blog post.

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David Dejewski

I really like those five questions. I used something very similar myself. I think it’s so important that every manager should print them out and have them along for the ride when evaluations are going on. Good post.

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Hannah Ornell

When I was reading your post, the word “autonomy” came to mind. In a psychology class, I learned about how having a sense of control really makes people happy and feel purposeful. I think that the conversation that a manager has one-on-one with her employees can be a good way to feel out what the employee wants from the job.

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Phuong Le Callaway, PhD

Most Federal employees are satisfied with their pay so pay is not an issue for them. I personally think that job satisfaction, working environment, the relationship between supervisor and employee, the opportunity to be recognized and the opportunity to contribute to their fullest potential would affect their decisions to stay or to leave the organization. Among those factors, I do believe that job satisfaction would be the most important factor. At least, for me, it is!

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