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Finding and Fostering Motivation in Our Work

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Woodrow Wilson said: “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

How many of your employees come to work merely to make a living? What else motivates them each day? Perhaps you asked them just that very question during their original employment interview, but how many years ago was that? Would they answer the question in the same manner today? 

Motivation spurs people into action, and the term has a positive connotation.  However, there are also forms of motivation that create less desirable actions, such as action driven by fear (of losing a job, of having to change jobs, of failure), frustration (over change, over process, over workload), complacency. How do you facilitate positive motivation through purpose, mission, public service and/or leadership? Many individuals are self-motivated, but that doesn’t mean they don’t also crave leadership and mission-driven purpose. 

Sometimes teams that have lost momentum have lost motivation. Perhaps the team becomes overly focused on the tasks they can almost perform on auto pilot, rather than using their technical expertise for problem-solving. In this case, motivation may be a matter of being reminded of:

How their work contributes to the mission of the organization

How their work betters the lives of citizens

How their work is a critical piece in a larger system

What the positive impact of their work is on others

How their knowledge, skills and abilities bring about success, or

How their strengths bring depth to the team

Employee engagement surveys often ask questions about motivation, but sometimes there are so many questions that, by the time an employee sifts through 40 different sections on medical, dental, vision, parking, carpooling and training, he’s lost all motivation to even complete the survey, missing all those questions in section 41 on motivation. 

So consider creating your own motivation in public service survey for your staff. It can be an anonymous questionnaire. Or you can sit down individually with staff and ask them: What motivates them about their career today? How does that differ from what motivated them in the first year of employment? 

Here are some sample questions if you use the anonymous survey tool. You may want to create a range of answers, one to seven, with seven being the highest, or make the answers yes or no response.

1. I love my job.

2. This county feels like family.

3. My work is valued by my supervisor.

4. I am respected by my supervisor.

5. I am encouraged to do my best.

6. I know and believe in the mission of my department.

7. My department is outstanding.

8. I feel supported when I bring forward a concern or mistake.

9. I contribute to my team’s success.

10. Our work environment allows me to do my best every day.

11. My job makes good use of my skills and abilities.

12. I am valued by co-workers.

13. My work makes the community in which I live a better place.

14.  Our county serves citizens with respect and courtesy.

15. I am proud to be a public servant and work in county government.

Perhaps you also want to ask survey respondents to rank reasons why they come to work each day, including salary, benefits, time spent with co-workers, interesting work, continual learning, leadership, mission, personal accomplishment, and innovation.

Questions you can ask your staff  individually include:

1. What motivates you when you arrive at work each day?

2. How does that motivation differ from what motivated you on your very first day of work?

3. Why (or why not) has that motivation changed?

4. How can we motivate new employees who join this team? 

5. What is one small thing that makes a difference when you feel your motivation waning?

6. What is one way in which you motivate the others on the team? 

Sometimes the way in which someone motivates others can give insight into how they themselves prefer to be motivated. Do they give praise and if so, do they give the praise, publicly or privately, verbally or in writing? Do they show appreciation by bringing in food to share with others? Do they celebrate a work anniversary? Do they offer their assistance without being asked? Do they take on a task or lead a project? Do they create a silly award that rotates from team member to team member?

Consider this example of motivation. Ryan has worked for Shay for three years and seems to have inconsistent performance, particularly in the area of deadlines. Periodically, Ryan will get behind on his work, leading Ryan and Shay to go through a cycle of coaching, verbal warnings and work plans. Whenever Ryan is on a work plan, he and Shay meet each week for an hour to discuss the work plan and check in on the status of Ryan’s projects. When Ryan is on a work plan, his projects are on time; the minute he is off the work plan, things are late again. Shay thinks Ryan has great skills, but she is exhausted by the amount of documentation required whenever Ryan is on the work plan and she feels like Ryan only produces when he thinks he may be on the path to dismissal.  

One day, Shay wonders if she meets with Ryan weekly, only for a half an hour, when he is not on a work plan, will the feedback motivate Ryan to stay on deadline? Six months later, Shay got her answer. The discussion in those weekly meetings reminded Ryan of how his work connected to the department’s broader goals and the county’s mission. The weekly feedback prolonged Ryan’s motivation and his performance had been sustained without the work plan. 

Motivation varies from person to person and is based on the individual needs of the person. That is why often first-line supervisors, who know the employees best, can be a critical piece in the motivation puzzle. But asking motivation questions and using a variety of motivation strategies can be an effective way for leaders create high performing, highly engaged teams. As public sector employees, the connection to service and to citizens is a common motivator, and asking your team about motivation and taking a moment to reflect upon motivation, can be a powerful pause that energizes the work. We are public servants because we desire to enrich the world.

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