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Why Should Employees Follow You?

Human Motivation in Local Government

By Troy Holt

Local government leaders have the challenge to motivate employees without the ability to use financial resources in a manner comparable to the private sector. Fortunately, money alone cannot move employees to the highest stage of motivation. An understanding of the levels of human motivation can result in a higher quality organizational culture, boost productivity and inspire innovation.

A Difficult and Important Issue

motivationEmployee motivation has long been a difficult, yet extremely important issue for leaders to tackle. “A good theory of motivation is one that allows managers to understand what makes individual employees tick and which options are the most promising for influencing,” wrote Frederick Herzberg, Bernard Mausner and Barbara Bloch Snyderman in their 1959 book, The Motivation to Work.

Many theories of human motivation have been developed, including Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y, McClelland’s Theory of Needs, and Deci’s Cognitive Evaluation Theory.

Employee demographics, diversity and the changing scope of work create challenges for leaders to keep their employees motivated. In the 2010 book, Handbook of Human Resource Management in Government (published by Stephen Condrey), Arie Halachmi and Theo van der Krogt state in their article, “The Role of the Manager,” that  “…temporary or part-time contracts for work performed at home…require managers to come up with new and innovative solutions to motivational issues in general.” The authors note that older employees are staying in the workforce longer, and “organizations must find new ways to keep veteran employees motivated and retain their job satisfaction.” Additionally, the authors write that younger workers are delaying their entry into the workforce as they complete advanced education, requiring organizations to redesign training programs that place more weight on professional and personal growth. They add, “…younger workers have greater expectations for independence, involvement in decision making, and balancing work with life away from the job.”

Halachmi and van der Krogt assert that leaders must understand four important factors to induce motivation:

  1. Employees want working conditions that accommodate family and single parenthood.
  2. Employees want a say in decisions that affect the way they carry out their work, and the roles of who may act as mentors and coaches.
  3. Employees crave authority, responsibility and autonomy in their work.
  4. Employees need work accommodations that are suitable for one’s age, gender, religion and ethical concerns. 

Halachmi and van der Krogt point out that employees must be self-motivated, and “managers can foster the conditions in which it is easier for people to motivate themselves.”

Levels of Human Motivation

Individual motivation has progressed with human evolution. Daniel Pink, in his 2011 book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, discusses three levels of motivation:

  • Motivation 1.0 — the most primitive level and involves basic survival. This is a biological motivation, developed 50,000 years ago, to move away from danger. 
  • Motivation 2.0 — the seeking of extrinsic rewards and avoiding punishment. This is the traditional carrot and stick approach and assumes that employees will be motivated primarily by monetary compensation and the threat of reprimand. 
  • Motivation 3.0 — the ascension to intrinsic motivation. This level of self-motivation ignites a person’s passion to innovate, learn, create, and to work toward a better world. 

Motivation 2.0 uses “if-then” rewards. Rewards are offered as contingencies, such as, “If you do this, then you’ll get that.” For routine tasks (work that can be reduced to a script, a spec sheet, a formula or a set of instructions), “if-then” rewards can sometimes be effective. But for creative, conceptual tasks, they invariably do more harm than good. Pink writes that Motivation 2.0, “Doesn’t recognize purpose as a motivator…[it] doesn’t banish the concept, but it relegates it to the status of ornament — a nice accessory if you want it, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of the important stuff” and, “…Motivation 2.0 neglects a crucial part of who we are.

Motivation 3.0, by contrast, is expressly built for purpose maximization. It seeks engagement that can produce mastery. Pink writes, “Autonomous people working toward mastery perform at very high levels. But those who do so in the service of some greater objective can achieve even more. The most deeply motivated people — not to mention those who are most productive and satisfied — hitch their desires to a cause larger than themselves.” Motivation 3.0 invokes the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself.

Money is the Best Motivator…Right?

Not always…and only under certain conditions. People have to earn a living. It is, according to Pink, necessary to pay a baseline reward – salary and benefits that are adequate or equitable and keep an employee from focusing on an “unfairness of her situation and the anxiety of her circumstance.” 

Without adequate baseline compensation, leaders will get neither extrinsic nor intrinsic motivation. Pink states, “The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table.” This allows employees to concentrate on the work they love, rather than worrying about how they will pay their bills with an insufficient salary or scheming to get a small bonus.

In his 1996 book, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, Edward Deci documents multiple studies in which he concluded that money ultimately undermines intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to be the “origin” of one’s own action rather than a “pawn” manipulated by external forces, such as pay for performance.

As an emotional catalyst, wealth maximization lacks the power to fully mobilize human energies,” writes Gary Hamel in his 2009 Harvard Business Review article, “Moon Shots for Management.”

The Purpose Motive

Leaders in local government agencies can leverage the natural human tendency to seek purpose. People want to contribute and be part of a cause greater than them. Pink calls this the “purpose motive,” a high level of intrinsic motivation that moves beyond the reward that financial compensation can achieve.

Volunteer reserve police officers provide an example of the purpose motive. Some are motivated by the possibility of a future career in law enforcement. But many already have successful non-law enforcement jobs and serve as reserve police officers to do their part to make their communities safer. The California Reserve Peace Officers Association publishes a poster that shows two ominous individuals standing in a dark alley. The caption states, “You wouldn’t go in there for a million bucks. A Cop does it for a lot less. A Reserve does it for free…” Volunteer reserve officers don’t work for the benefit of a paycheck or a pension. They put on their badges and holsters and head into that dark alley for the intrinsic motivation to make a difference.

Local government leaders must be skilled in the ability to ignite intrinsic motivation by tapping into each employee’s natural purpose motive. It takes more skill to inspire this level of motivation, and it is certainly more difficult than simply using extrinsic motivators such as bonuses, pay for performance, etc. Once achieved, however, the results can be harmonious with what citizens expect – high productivity, great innovation and the ability to make our communities better places to live.

Author:  ASPA member Troy Holt, MPA, has twenty-five years of public agency management experience in departments ranging from Police, Public Works, Transportation, Administrative Services and the City Manager’s Office. He is a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government Senior Executives in State and Local Government program, and he is currently the Director of Communications and Government Relations for the City of Rancho Cordova, CA, the first local government agency to earn the distinction as a Fortune Great Place to Work. He is also a member of the ICMA Advisory Board on Graduate Education and can be reached via email at [email protected], followed on Twitter at @TroyGHolt, and LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/tgholt.

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