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H.R. specialist discusses possible fixes to morale problems across federal agencies

Federal employees show a trend toward overall lower morale at work when surveyed in recent years. As part of our exploration of how managers and supervisors can improve the situation, Nathan Abse interviewed David Ulrich, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Michigan.

Federal employees show a trend toward overall lower morale at work when surveyed in recent years. As part of our exploration of how managers and supervisors can improve the situation, Nathan Abse interviewed David Ulrich, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Michigan. Ulrich, often referred to as the “father of modern H.R.,” offers his thoughts on what went wrong in recent years for federal employees—and advice on how management can raise morale—possibly even within very restrictive budgets.

Q & A with David Ulrich

Morale is down, on average, in the federal workplace in recent years—and could get worse, with the White House and Congress pushing budget cuts. How can managers turn this around?

Ulrich: I’ve got four points that, if taken into account by managers, they can improve morale. I understand and appreciate government service because my father and grandfather were both government employees. I am a government employee—a professor at a state university. So, I know—and my first point is—that people in government aren’t there to make a lot of money. They need to make a living but government is more about service than it is about economic gain—about public service. You work from an ethos in government that you want to help society operate more effectively. So, if you are managing government employees or among them, to get to good morale you have to address this part—starting with recognizing that public service sensibility.

OK, so managers should be mindful of the public service aims of feds. What’s the second point?

Ulrich: My second point is that, in more recent times, there has been an evolution at workplaces, in government too, with more factors being important to morale. It used to be the main factor in government work was that [public service] work “satisfaction”—satisfaction you felt because you liked your job and what you did for the country. Now employees’ thinking on that has moved on—good morale at work is not about just whether you have a positive response to “Do I like my boss?” It goes beyond that to include, “Does my boss give me the skills that I need to do my job right?” In short, the question has moved from just being about work “satisfaction” to one of sensing “commitment” from your employer—including a sense of growth and learning in your job over time. Employees now ask, “Does my boss help me build enough of the right skills to do what I need to do?”—measuring their employer’s commitment—along with the perennial “Do I feel satisfied?” and “Am I being paid fairly?” questions. It’s the next step in what employees want, up from the old focus on what we called job satisfaction alone.

OK, so managers must exhibit commitment to their employees. So that’s two points on how to raise morale—can you discuss the other two? 

Ulrich: So, yes, a third point for employees is that, these days, they are not interested only in job satisfaction and a commitment from work to their growth. They’ve moved on to also wanting to find “meaning,” a deeper sense of purpose, in their work—and, fourth, to be permitted to help shape their purpose.

Can you discuss those: helping find meaning and purpose, and helping shape those senses?

Ulrich: Yes. This has long been common among self-employed persons. Self-employed people work long hours, but they get to find and shape their purpose. For instance, I’m a professor, but since I do consulting work too, I get an added sense of control. I can pause my day to do other things I need or want to do—it’s a degree of autonomy. Likewise, for those in government work, we have seen an evolution from the old rubrics of doing a good job well, on to wanting to feel a sense of purpose and wanting to help shape that purpose. So, that’s the evolution of [what people want at work]—of employees moving from mostly seeking basic satisfaction, to also seeking employer commitment, and then on to seeking greater meaning and purpose. Supervisors and managers need to be aware of these sources of morale.

So, if those are the four senses that build morale in a contemporary workforce, the question is what can managers do for employees, to provide or strengthen them? You listed: (1) a sense of public service, (2) a sense of employer “commitment” (adequate training and support, plus the flip side of that, employee “engagement”), and finally a sense of (3) meaning and (4) purpose?

Ulrich: Yes. I coauthored a book on how to strengthen these senses, called the “Why of Work.” In our research, we found seven major things that help employees through these senses ultimately to a sense of meaning and purpose at work. It’s a range of things—remember, once you make the choice to work in government, making the best money as a main goal is off the table. Usually what figures is much more than money, and includes these [seven] factors.

Can you describe your seven key inputs—which go into meaning and purpose?

Ulrich: Here are the seven—and everything management does should consider these as important to employee morale. First, you have to know there’s a desire in employees to use their strengths to help others. On this one, as with each of the others, there are questions in the employee—here, it’s simply, “Am I using my strengths to help others?” For example, if I’m a scientist at EPA, I ask, “Am I using my strengths to help protect people?” Or, if I’m an EPA manager I think, “How do I get my employees to use their best strengths, toward that end?” Second, there’s a desire to have impact specifically in the employee’s chosen area—following the question, “Am I impacting the area I care about?” So, if I’m at EPA, I’ll ask myself, “Am I protecting the environment?” Because, as someone at the EPA, the environment is most important to me. Third, there’s a desire to feel good about how I fit with the others around me—the question here might be, “Who do I work with? How do my colleagues figure in my work?” In my research, I’ve always been interested in the power of peers. It is always a big impact, just like when we were teenagers. In government, just like the private sector, we really need managers who think carefully about how to assemble teams with shared values. So, those are some factors that affect morale.

So, you’ve listed three of your seven factors for managers to think about: basically, satisfying feds’ desire to help others, their desire to connect their work to their skills and mission, and their need to build a team of peers with share values. But what are the other four?

Ulrich: Ok, so fourth, there’s a need to create and maintain a positive work environment. This is key even when the wider world or the political environment seems negative. The question an employee asks themselves here is, “Do I have a positive working environment?”—you know, how do I bring energy and enthusiasm to what my team is doing—and to making it as nice as possible to be at work? Ironically, sometimes people have strong morale when they are under siege, as I noticed at the IRS years ago. Fifth, to make sure the work each employee does matches skills and engages them. This one is about the essence of what you do. If you’re a writer or journalist, you like to discover and share ideas. If you are a professor, in my case, you really like to hone how you present ideas to a live audience. In short, this one is about making sure an employee’s work jibes with the essence of their skills—keeping close to that, so the work engages them. The sixth factor is about growth—it follows from the question “Do I have a growth mindset here--am I learning and growing at work?” Research shows that a growth mindset adds greatly to a sense of meaning. Finally, seventh, answers the question, “Am I having fun at work?” So, these are the seven factors that we find add to employees’ sense of meaning. When we help employees gain control over these seven factors—whether in government or non-government work—they find a greater sense of meaning at work. And that is really important for morale.

So, managers and supervisors should support these seven inputs, make sure they are considered in all decisions—but how do you get all seven to come together, to make morale really gel?

Ulrich: So, there are usually several parts to attend to. Overall, first, there is trying to support a feeling, a kind of empathizing with the work of government, being part of public service. Second, you are trying to help people to feel an evolution, as I just laid out—of employee engagement, something that’s beyond mere “satisfaction.” Because, again, employees want meaning and control over the shape of that meaning. Beyond this, there are a number of factors that can go into supporting these senses.

That all sounds good—but some of it seems abstract. Can you offer us a how-to? On what to do to nail all that down in the federal workplace?

Ulrich: None of us know exactly what works. No one really knows definitively. You have to think about and support the factors we just went over. If you want more than that, I think along with the other things I’ve mentioned here, I believe it is worth remembering that in government work there is a separation between the top elected officials and the senior career government officials. [From my background] this calls to mind scripture that reads, “In patience, possess ye your souls.” Be patient. It can pay off. The point is, whenever a new administration comes in, new political officials also come in, at the very top—and if you sense they are being [harmful], just try to remember those same people also eventually leave. Top SES officials, especially, really should have patience—and take the long view.  If as a leader you let yourself get jerked around by the latest political appointee, you will never catch up—and you’ll always be chasing a future that will never come. Finally, it’s also worth remembering to just do good work. As a federal employee or manager, you know what it takes to do good work—work that creates value for the people out there. Keep doing it.

OK, but it seems many voters apparently think that federal employees are not managing risk or improving things—and instead are overpaid and doing little good. Though employees feel this is wrong, it hurts morale. Advice?

Ulrich: Yes, so as we just said, if you are a manager or leader encourage good work, being patient and limiting damage. But part of that also is, for one thing, don’t hide the obvious truth from employees. That would be stupid. It just hurts credibility and morale. There is a lot of stuff going on right now out there that is tough for feds. You know, at EPA, at the Department of Education, all over the government. And as managers or supervisors you cannot control all of these things, or all of the words circulating. So, acknowledge this outside world, and that part of it is against you or your department. But then quickly get down to talking about what we can control. That’s like: Let’s get clear about our purpose, in a positive way. If we’re at Education, we’re not here to “regulate education,” we’re here to educate the next generation. Once you’ve got your purpose down, then remind everyone to bring their best self to work. And keep on this. Managers and employees need to get and feel involved, so everyone will feel greater control—and they will feel like, and they will be, shaping their purpose, as they participate in what the agency is doing. That’s the direction you need to go in. 

What the negative talk from outside and often above an agency—how would you deal with top leadership downtalking agencies and their employees?

Ulrich: You have to remember to say to yourself as an employee or manager: “This or that person is an elected political official. But I’m different—I am an employee. I am serving the citizens, the people of America, in a specific way, and my agenda is serving the people.” Everyone needs to remember this. And—again, I have to say it—be patient.

Any other factors that could be helpful to improving morale?

Ulrich: One that comes to my mind is this: A lot of people talk about the importance of leadership authenticity. Yes, it can be important. But I would caution that sometimes that authenticity you’re hearing is just straight narcissism. That is, sometimes leaders are very authentic—they honestly share everything about their ideas and opinions and so on—but also very narcissistic at the same time. And that can lead to atrocious leadership.  That is not good leadership. Good leadership in government is being committed to actually helping to create a better life and financial picture for regular people. It’s not about authenticity, alone or even mostly—it’s about creating value for others. Leadership should not be about the leader, about that single person or group of people—but instead about the act of creating real value for those you work with and the those you are serving. My dad, who worked for the U.S. Government’s Job Corps—a government agency that objectively didn’t accomplish all it set out to do, decades ago. But as he used to say, “Hey, you gotta try, Dave—and government work can be a good mechanism to do that.” And they did try, and they accomplished some of their goals. You need to remember the good you can do—and that is often hard to remember when you are under siege.

But when we hear from feds, many are fed up with lack of appreciation, and insults, you know?

Ulrich: I know what you are talking about. For instance, many feds—being public servants with modest salaries, object to such a wealthy [and largely politically inexperienced] Cabinet that we have right now. But if you are an agency manager or supervisor, and you are fretting over those officials or leaders you don’t agree with, maybe also try to think more broadly about their successes. I’m not being Pollyanna, I’m saying that I mean though you may disagree with much of their work, or how they succeeded, try to imagine at least the question, “What can I learn from them?” I challenge myself to do this—instead of getting upset with leaders I disagree with, I try to think about the positives. And sometimes there is something positive. It’s more constructive than just being unhappy with them. Remember—patience. This too shall pass. 

Reader comments

Tue, Aug 8, 2017 am

I agree with the clerk. Managements have their favorite. Management would rather have the worst employees over the good hard worker employees.

Mon, Aug 7, 2017 clerk

I don't think patience might solve the problems. Really, the upper managements have their favorite. They are the one causes problem with the good employees.

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