Motivation in the workplace – it takes two to tango

Paul Rowson interviewed on "In Depth" with Francis Rose

wfedstaff | June 4, 2015 5:32 pm

By Paul Rowson, managing principal, Totally Engaged Workforce Solutions

When you ask senior executives, “What are your big worries?” you’ll often hear, “Keeping my employees motivated and engaged.”

Think about that for a moment. What motivates you at work? Is it pay? Is it benefits? Is it having flexibility over when, where and how you get work done? The irony is that if you’re like most people, you’re probably not like other people when it comes to what factors motivate you. The one thing most employees do have in common is a boss. I like to think of work as a dance floor and your boss is your dance partner. One leads and one follows. Together you succeed or fail.

Each one of us is “wired” differently. We have our own unique skill sets, work styles and talents. And depending on where we find ourselves in life, at work and at play, we have our own set of needs for self worth, balance, wellness, and well-being.


At the beginning of each work day we typically think about what we need to get done and at the end of the day we often find ourselves wondering, “Was it worth it?” For example, is being paid more money a motivational substitute for a boss who is inflexible and not willing to listen to your ideas? Ask any employee who has worked for an intolerant and rigid boss.

Is telework and flexible work a substitute for being asked for your opinion, invited to participate in key meetings, participate in workplace celebrations and career development events? Ask any teleworker who found themselves disconnected from feedback, teammates, and vital work resources in exchange for their cube and a desk.

Is having a boss who constantly looks over your shoulder and brings mistakes to your attention a worse alternative to a boss who avoids conflict and hopes you will fix mistakes on your own? Ask anyone who has learned of the consequences of their mistakes for the first time during their annual performance review!

Speaking of employee performance and performance reviews, the Office of Personnel Management has taken a leadership role in improving motivation among the federal workforce. In spite of pay and benefits being frozen in the midst of budget woes, OPM and agency chief human capital officers have set wheels in motion to teach managers how to discuss performance with employees and how to reward and recognize strong performers.

The GEAR project (Goals, Engagement, Accountability, and Results) being piloted by OPM and five other agencies is a bold and courageous step in the right direction. The skill they plan to teach and develop in managers is one that research shows builds trust at all levels. That same research shows that a lack of trust between an employee and manager is the primary reason employees lose motivation and even quit their jobs. This is especially true of top performers.

Similar initiatives are being implemented in the new Senior Executive Service Performance Management System, which focuses attention and accountability on key “people” objectives among senior federal managers. Employees should see this as a very positive sign.

Nothing is as unmotivating as working harder and contributing more than others around you then receiving the same recognition and reward. It’s not only demotivating, it’s demoralizing.

Given their mission, I bet most federal employees can handle any budget freeze and personal belt-tightening that’s thrown at them if they have a fair and competent manager who knows how to set clear goals; is in tune with staff needs and concerns; holds all employees equally accountable; and focuses results and rewarding their achievement fairly. And that is what GEAR and the new SES Performance Management System is all about.

Employees, think about your best and worst boss. What was it that distinguished them as motivators? And managers, think about your best and worst employees. What could you have done better to support each other? How well did you “dance” together?

When people ask me, “Hey Paul, you’re an HR guy. What are the secrets to motivating employees?” I try to keep things pretty darn simple. Often it boils down to the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

There’s a lot of motivational psychology research with detailed analysis. In the end though, it always seems to boil down to advising managers to find out what’s most important to each of their employees and then making sure each employee is supported, valued, respected, and rewarded fairly and consistently.

And, surprisingly to some, I advise employees to do the same in return with their managers.

After all, it takes two to tango.

Paul Rowson is the managing principal at Totally Engaged Workforce Solutions. He wrote this column as part of Federal News Radio’s special report, Managing Morale.