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How to Work with the Nattering Nabobs of Negativity about Government Work

When I took my first job in state government, people from the local community I had been working in said to me “Oh, I’m SO glad to know YOU’LL be there.”  

From our work together at the local level, my reputation as a contributor was solid.  These comments from my local colleagues pointed to my demonstrated commitment to quality, integrity and results, qualities they anticipated I’d bring to my new job at the state agency.

Without specifically saying so, their comments also pointed to a series of common stereotypes about government workers as unmotivated, obstructionist bureaucrats.

In my 10 years working in state government, I found examples to both prove those stereotypes and completely dispel it.  I served with some of the most dedicated and committed public servants, who were moving mountains to serve constituents, create meaningful change and deliver quality results.  

I also met people working in government who weren’t exactly living up to standards of acceptable performance one would hope for in any job.

What I found in working with people who fit the negative stereotype was that they weren’t very happy in their jobs.  They also often weren’t being supervised very well.  

I wondered how this had happened to them, as I’ve yet to meet anyone, who as a 5 year old, had a career aspiration to be dead wood: uninspired, bored, and disengaged.  

Since the biggest underutilized resource in any organization, including government, are its people, I became very interested in how we motivate, inspire and successfully engage employees to create excellent results, which has lead me to the work I do today as an executive, leadership and team coach with individuals and teams from the public and nonprofit sectors.

Why understanding government employee motivation matters

While government workers are usually motivated by intrinsic values of the organizational mission, understanding the unique factors of what makes your employees more satisfied and engaged at work is an important organizational feedback loop that lowers employee turnover, increases employee loyalty, improves productivity, and ultimately results in greater organizational impact and long-term success.  

An organization’s work environment—and the way it treats its employees—drives employee satisfaction, engagement, recruitment and retention. While there are often aspects of the work we can’t control in government, such as salary or benefits, there are many other components that we do have control over: providing employees with a distinct vision for the organization, specific goals to work toward and clear expectations, empowerment in relevant decision-making processes, clear articulation of the employee’s role in the organization’s success, providing regular feedback including performance reviews and other measures, and providing opportunities for growth and development both personally and within the organization.  There are things we can do to improve both the negative stereotypes and the reality of government work.

How to promote government employee engagement and motivation:

  1. With any negative feedback, one of the best ways to address it without defensiveness is to look for the 2% truth:  what is the 2% truth in the negative stereotypes of government workers?  What part of these negative beliefs might sometimes be true?  What information does that give us about what needs to change?
  2. Focus on developing and maintaining a positive and quality work environment.  Leaders need to be sure to articulate a compelling vision and goal for their group, including employees’ role in decision making processes and in the delivery of program success.
  3. Understand what motivates and energizes employees individually.  In your one on ones with employees, find out what motivates them and excites them about their jobs.  Why do they do what they do?  What about the work matters to them?  Focus on their strengths and capacities, and actively look for opportunities for growth and development that align with their goals and objectives at work.
  4. Hold employees accountable.  The best way to create the negative stereotype of the government employee is to have poor performance measures and low levels of accountability.  Learn how to provide critical feedback, as well as positive reinforcement, so that employees understand expectations up front and how they will be held to acceptable standards.  

In the comments below, I’d love to hear from you.  What helps promote accountability, high performance and a positive work culture in government?  How do you work with negative stereotypes about government?

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