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Making a Difference

A macro shot of the word "Inspire" from the dictionary
I've always held the opinion that most of my colleagues in public management and, indeed most public employees, are generally motivated by a call to service. To borrow from an old U.S. Army recruiting slogan, “It's not just a job…” It’s gratifying to see it substantiated by academia. Jim Perry of Indiana University calls it “public-service motivation.”

In my previous blog post, “Employee Satisfaction: What Goes Around Comes Around,” I referred to Ken Miller’s observation in his book “Extreme Government Makeover” that the majority of public employees are motivated by a desire to make a difference. In the February 2013 issue of Bob Behn’s Performance Leadership Report, Behn cites new research by McKinsey and Company in their January 2013 McKinsey Quarterly that describes a so called Meaning Quotient or MQ that they believe all employees want from their toils. The McKinsey report is about private sector workers but Behn says, "For public-sector employees, McKinsey’s 'Meaning Quotient' is inherently large. It might be protecting vulnerable children. It might be creating the infrastructure that facilitates better economic development and more employment. It might be ensuring that marketplace for financial securities, or for housing, or for employment is fair for all. It might be defending the country."

McKinsey describes the motivational benefit from “small unexpected rewards” and though the public sector can’t offer the kind of perks afforded private sector employees, Behn suggests that “public executives can employ a variety of intrinsic rewards and esteem opportunities to demonstrate that the accomplishments of individuals and teams are appreciated.”

This is exactly the motivational benefit I received as described in “Big Results with a Small Gesture”—showing genuine appreciation to your staff is effective in any organization and will pay dividends. Behn takes the message beyond just the employees adding, "Still, it would certainly help if public executives told a few stories to remind employees, citizens, and potential employees of the meaning involved in all of government work."

This is a responsibility of public sector leaders and managers. Negative stereotypes are all too easy to accept, and it’s equally easy to take good work for granted. Make the time for positive reinforcement and for acknowledging accomplishments publicly. While it is important to recognize a whistleblower for exposing waste or wrongdoing, it isn't just an exercise in PR to give recognition for good work—it’s leadership and good management.

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Photo of Lynn Nordby

About Lynn Nordby

Lynn’s public sector career included over 30 years in local government management and experience in virtually all municipal services including the operations of a wide variety of municipal utilities. He is now retired.