Enterprise Software

Six rules for motivating and retaining good government employees

The perception of government IT workers is that they are overworked, underpaid, and must cope with inflexible or uninspired management. Ramon Padilla draws on his sixteen years of government experience to lay out these six rules for motivating and retaining good employees.

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In response to my recent article on dealing with problem employees, I had a reader who responded with, "Tell me how to deal with great employees so I can keep them happy and motivated in a government environment!"

Ah, that's the kicker isn't it? A "government environment" often equates to: low pay, lack of incentives, inflexible environment, lack of resources, uninspired management and coworkers, work overload, unappreciative consumers….This list could go on and on.

Sounds like we got it pretty rough doesn't it? Actually, it's not nearly as bad as it seems. There are many important things that we can do to motivate employees and keep them happy, productive, and—most importantly—retain them in the organization.

I have spent more than 16 years managing IT staff in a government setting and feel that I have achieved success in doing exactly what the reader has described—leading and motivating excellent employees. Based on their feedback and performance, I am not alone in this opinion.

So I am going to share with you my approach on how to do this in a government environment, although the approach is applicable to both the public and private sector. And though none of this is going to be shocking to you, perhaps it will give you some tools to improve morale in your workplace. Here are my six rules for motivating and keeping good employees.

#1 Lead by example

First and foremost, it starts with YOU. Whether you are a leader of a small team, or manage a large department, it is important to realize that you set the tone. It is mostly your example that has the greatest impact on your subordinates. If you are tired, grumpy, lacking in motivation, or just grinding out the years to retirement, don't expect to have legions of happy employees running around thrilled to be working for you. A defeatist attitude is contagious and will spread through your staff like a poison.

Conversely, a positive attitude is contagious, and your subordinates and colleagues will feed off of your positive energy. And before you start to complain that your management is not doing that for you—buck up! You are management and you are expected to be self-motivated.

#2 Tell the truth

Be honest in your dealings with your employees and set a good example for them when you are communicating with others throughout your organization. That doesn't mean you have to share sensitive information with them when you are asked; just tell them you can't talk about it. As long as you are viewed as an honest broker—that will usually sit fine with them.

#3 Show respect

I expect it for myself, and I certainly show it to those that I supervise. If you are a yeller, you need to stop it. Of course, no one wants or likes to be yelled at, and rather than a sign of being tough, your employers will probably read it as a sign that you are unreasonable, or out of control. If you are prone to call your employees out in front of their peers, you should save reprimands for private conversations. And don't talk down to employees—treat each person like a professional and a human being with feelings.

#4 Communicate

You can't be effective sitting behind your desk all day. Get out and talk to those who are working for you. Talk to them about their work, any problems they are experiencing, what they need to do their job better. After all, as a manager, it's your job to remove barriers to their success. Some people call this management by "walking around." While you are out and about, this is the perfect time to catch someone doing something right and recognize them with a compliment. For-profit organizations often use monetary "spot rewards" to do the same thing, however sincere recognition goes farther than an insincere spot reward.

But you can't stop there. You need to be a fountain of information. You are usually the conduit for information as it flows down from the top of the organization. If you aren't sharing it, then they probably are not hearing it, and that often leads to an atmosphere of rumor and misinformation. So consider doing a weekly communiqué to keep your staff informed, summarizing the information you have gathered during the past week.

#5 Be flexible

Remember, employees have to come to work because they have lives and responsibilities. But they don't have to be a star performer. To get the most out of them, you need to create an environment in which they feel comfortable enough to excel. While people can excel in spurts in a lousy environment, functioning that way over a long period of time requires them to be in a place where they will allow themselves to go above and beyond. If the organization doesn't foster that culture, you can still create an island of goodness in a sea of unpleasantness by being flexible with work schedules and work assignments. Life happens, so be as accommodating as you can without losing workplace efficiency.

#6 Challenge employees

Even if they have to perform the most mundane tasks, make sure your subordinates know why it is important in the big scheme of things and that you appreciate it. Also, help your employees stretch themselves to achieve more and grow. Even with strict guidelines on what is in an employee's job description, you can find a way to provide a meaningful challenge. In my last shop, I made sure every employee was working on some sort of certification. These certifications helped me retain good employees because they enjoyed the learning process. Whether it is through training, increased responsibility, or higher goals, you need to make sure that your staff is not stuck in a job rut.

If you practice these six rules, it has been my experience that you can keep your employees motivated and retain them for quite some time. Most importantly, note that I said lead by example in the first rule, not manage. You manage things—you lead people. For more inspiration on motivating government employees, try these tips at GovLeaders.org.

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