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Public Service Motivation: A Two-Sided Coin

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
February 28, 2022

Public service motivation (PSM) refers to an individual’s desire to serve a greater good. Individuals with higher levels of PSM hold an ideal for helping other individuals and their communities attain a higher quality of life, even if only in a limited area of technical service. It can be a powerful influence in attracting them to careers in the public or non-profit sectors. There is the potential for PSM to be found in the private sector, such as in health care and education, where individuals seek to serve others in environments where relevant functions are carried out by non-government actors. It is not the sector which defines PSM—it is the yearning to be part of something greater than themselves. If understood, PSM can be a powerful aid to public administrators seeking to develop and sustain motivated, passionate, engaged employees. If misunderstood, it can damage or destroy an organizational culture.

The Good Side: Mission-focused Mindset

PSM is a potentially valuable tool for public sector leaders, if they learn to leverage it for the benefit of the agency and the community. Individuals with higher levels of PSM often seek employment in the public sector, seeking to align their personal and professional goals of service. This can support the development of a mission-focused mindset in both the individual and the organizational culture. A mission-focused mindset is characterized by high levels of professionalism, attention to detail and a passion for achieving the formal and informal outcomes of the organization. With a strong, mission-focused mindset, employees remain focused on the end-goal, finding ways to remove, reduce or avoid any potential obstacles, collaborating with others steadfastly to achieve the agency’s mission. This contributes to better services and a higher quality of life for the community, if public sector leaders can embrace those with higher levels of PSM, encouraging them in their professional quests.

The Bad Side: Workplace Bullying

While PSM may be a powerful influence in getting someone into the public sector, once in, they are largely subject to the same forces which influence morale and motivation elsewhere. Sometimes, public sector leaders forget this, and rely too heavily on PSM to sustain morale and motivation. In doing so, they may neglect concerns for morale and motivation in the workplace, which might contribute to decision making and operational practices which erode the fabric of a positive organizational culture. This might take the form of benign neglect, where public sector leaders presume morale and motivation will remain positive, relying too heavily on the personal values of employees, presuming little or no effort is needed to keep things moving smoothly. It might be akin to buying a robust plant, but neglecting to water it because you were forgetful or busy. However, the overreliance on PSM might contribute to a culture of workplace bullying.

Workplace bullying is a pattern of dysfunctional behaviors which might include verbal abuse, emotional abuse, threats of violence or actual violence. Workplace bullying might take the form of social marginalization, where individuals who are not viewed as “part of the team” are excluded from any form of social interaction inside or outside the workplace. It might take the form of professional marginalization, where individuals not considered sufficiently loyal or subservient to the organizational leadership are excluded from special projects, committees or promotions, regardless of the quality of their performance, hindering their prospects for professional development. This might be akin to buying a robust plant, then deliberately withholding water, putting it in the shade and perhaps pulling off leaves from time to time. In this case, the leadership relies on the resilience of the plant to survive, but if it dies, the plant will simply be replaced by another.

So What?

Regardless of the manner in which the “bad side” of the coin reveals itself, both the employee and the community suffer. If those in position of authority abuse their authority by abusing their employees, it is inaccurate to refer to them as leaders. At best, they are inept. At worst, they are toxic. This might contribute to lower performance quality and quantity, a diminished reputation for the agency, and a reduced quality of life for the community. If we seek to provide the best services possible, we must bring in motivated, talented people. We must support them as best we can, within the limits of the resources available, and encourage them to move forward. We must also trust and respect our employees, taking direct, positive actions to create an environment where their morale is high and where they may feel motivated—even liberated. In doing so, we create agencies capable of meeting the needs and expectations of their diverse communities in an effective, efficient and sustainable manner. We must never let ourselves or others neglect the needs of the public sector workforce, even if only unintentionally. We must never let others abuse employees maliciously. We must be “good gardeners,” tending the soil (organization) and the plants (employees) to achieve the best crop (service delivery) for our customers (the community).


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, is an HR training and development consultant and serves as Senior Adjunct Faculty at Grand Canyon University. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. Prior to this, he served over 30 years in local government and 10 years as a university professor. He may be reached at [email protected]

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