Motivating feds begins with understanding their feelings, experts say

Thursday - 7/25/2013, 5:34am EDT

By Cogan Schneier
Special to Federal News Radio

As agencies are realizing the pains of sequester may not be going away any time soon, some professionals are suggesting a different approach to managing the stress of budget constraints: talking it out.

At a leadership forum Wednesday, Patrick Malone, American University's executive in residence at the Department of Public Administration and Policy, said federal executives need to foster stronger work relationships to help employees stay productive in difficult fiscal times.

Malone said understanding the psychology of working in a sequestered government can be a key factor in motivating the workforce.

"I've got this phrase in my mind of 'sequestered emotions': chronic anger, anxiety and this sense of futility. And that's the one that worries me the most...as public sector leaders, you are motivated quite differently than those who work in the non profit and private sector...so when I see something like a sense of futility, that scares me to my heart and soul because it's the passion of the public service that keeps you where you are," Malone said at the forum Wednesday. "It's the passion for public service that puts you in that seat everyday, and it's true for those that you lead as well."

Robert Tobias, director, Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation, American University

Robert Tobias, director of AU's Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation (ISPPI), said 80 percent of federal workers chose public service because they were motivated by their personal values, not money. If leaders do not leverage this motivation, Tobias said, it is a missed opportunity.

Malone said leaders should try to mitigate the effects of "sequestered emotions." He said discussing emotions in the workplace, such as expressing frustration about management issues, can relieve tension by removing the "elephant in the room" from meetings.

Malone said leaders should let this happen by creating a talk-friendly environment. He said simple daily check-ins with employees are a good way to inspire open discussions over time.

Additionally, Malone said sequester stress can significantly impact the relationships between leaders and employees, and that leaders need to do their best to understand their own role in these relationships.

"It's this [sequester] stress that erodes our mental abilities," Malone said. "It erodes our emotional intelligence. It causes us to lose our self-awareness. It causes us not to manage our actions as well as we could. It causes us to be less socially aware, and it affects us greatly in our ability to reason."

Tobias said that this self-awareness leads to authenticity, which leaders need to foster strong, trusting relationships with their employees.

Both Tobias and Malone said that such relationships between leaders and employees help to create an environment for innovation, where workers feel they are allowed to take risks and innovate.

Letting employees take time to deal with personal needs, such as picking up children from school, can also inspire them to be more productive during their hours in the office, Malone said.

New tools, including an online course from the Office of Personal Management, may soon provide resources for federal employees to do this more easily.

Malone also suggested keeping a journal of feelings and writing a list of personal values to help remind leaders to take a step back to consider their personal needs and those of their workers.

Cogan Schneier is an intern for Federal News Radio.

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