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3 Challenges Managers Face in Retaining Their Teams

With 60% of senior executives in government currently eligible for retirement, agencies need to invest in their future leaders now. This is easier said than done, however, as managers across all federal agencies have found it very challenging to retain their top performers and recruit new talent because of pay freezes, shutdowns and low morale.

In a GovLoop online training course, Traci DiMartini, Chief Human Capital Officer from the U.S. Peace Corps, provided tips for managers who are struggling to retain members of their team in public service.

Here are three of the main challenges managers face, as well as solutions proposed by DiMartini:

Challenge No. 1:  An employee feels disengaged from the mission of government in their work.

It’s normal for each of us to sometimes feel as if our day-to-day work isn’t valuable or making a real impact. Public servants are no exception. One suggestion DiMartini has for managers is to remind disengaged members that even though they might not directly see how their work connects to an agency’s goals, it significantly contributes to the overall mission and uniquely supports the team. Highlight for employees how their role directly helps the agency deliver mission-critical support to citizens.

DiMartini offered that training is one possible solution for reengaging employees.  “Training, in my experience as a manager, is always something people want, and they sometimes are either afraid to ask because they don’t think I’ll say yes, or they’re afraid to take time out of their workday.” By seeing that their manager is willing to invest in them, employees will feel more valued both in their work and as individuals.

Dimartini also suggested simply setting aside one-on-one time with employees.  Something as easy as getting a cup of coffee together can provide a manager an opportunity to ask a team member for valuable feedback (for instance, what they think is or isn’t working in their position) and help create an environment where each individual feels valued and heard.

Challenge No. 2:  An employee believes that there isn’t any room for further growth or career development in their current agency or position.

If an employee is frustrated that there are no opportunities for them to vertically advance their career, although it might seem counterintuitive at first, DiMartini recommended managers encourage employees to consider lateral opportunities, even if they are at another agency. She emphasized that a lateral move could help open the door to new promotion opportunities in the future. Most importantly, by changing positions laterally, “you’re actually going to get out of that rut, and once you get out of that rut, you’re automatically going to feel more engaged.”

Challenge No. 3:  An employee feels that their career isn’t meeting their personal goals.

It’s important to remember what ultimately makes a career in the public sector rewarding: a commitment to service. DiMartini suggested that managers ask dissatisfied employees to reflect on the following subjects: “What is your motivation? Why are you in federal service? What are your career goals?”

In some cases, however, this still might not be enough to reengage someone who feels they aren’t able to flourish in their current position. When faced with a top-talent team member who feels stifled, DiMartini urged managers to remind them that their skills are still valued and essential in their current position: “Sometimes it’s OK to tell folks to be an exemplary technical expert. That’s where your skillset is and that’s where you’re going to shine.”

Finally, as a general tip to managers who feel they are struggling to retain or motivate members of their team, DiMartini said the following: “You need to think about what you can control, and focus on that, and less on what you can’t control. You’re not going to be able to give everyone a pay raise if Congress doesn’t authorize it. Don’t even sweat it; that’s not why they’re walking out the door. They want to go somewhere where they feel valued, they feel heard, and they feel like they have a manager who has their back.”

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