Managing morale - lessons from OPM's John Berry

Wednesday - 2/15/2012, 2:00am EST

By John Berry, Director, Office of Personnel Management


Many managers find it challenging to motivate their teams to do their best.

At the Office of Personnel Management, I've asked our team to tackle big challenges in the past three years, and been proud to see our people - and our partners across government - step up and deliver big results. We've increased our hiring of veterans more than 4 percentage points; moved to resume-based job applications while speeding time-to-hire by nearly 15 percent; and eliminated the backlog in security clearances for the first time since 9/11. We've helped the Department of Health and Human Services stand up a new health insurance program for people with pre-existing conditions, and now I've challenged our team to eliminate the backlog in retirement applications within 18 months.

These are big pieces within our broad mission to recruit, retain, and hire the best - and they weren't easy to achieve. But I believe that our approach at OPM provides a useful example to bear in mind as managers across government tackle their own challenges and pursue their own missions.

Federal workers - like anyone else - are often motivated by the sense that they are achieving something worthwhile. Various business and management authors have their own labels. Most recently, Theresa Amabile and Steven Kramer have called it "the progress principle."

Under any name, the principle is simple and rings true. People like to see that their work has an effect - on helping others, on changing the world, on improving themselves. I believe that the federal workplace provides a uniquely powerful opportunity for managers to communicate the impact workers can have because the missions our agencies serve are so vital to so many Americans.

At OPM, those who work in our health insurance division can point to lives that have been saved and people who have been healed. In our Federal Investigative Services division, we can point to the millions of security clearance decisions we've helped agencies make.

Each agency has its own mission, backed by passionate, hard-working employees. Federal employees make the world safer by tracking down organized criminals and shadowy terrorist networks. We safeguard American freedoms, applying the same law to all citizens in fair and functioning courts. We keep America's natural beauty and resources fresh for future generations.

Keeping an eye on the broad missions we serve helps balance out the less than positive statements we often hear about federal employees. Managers can - and should - take appropriate opportunities to say, "Good job. The work you did today made Americans safer." Or, "More veterans will have jobs because of your work."

Individually, we may not have a big hand in any one mission, but we know that because we each do our share, America will remain the greatest nation in the world. The freedoms and safeties enjoyed by past generations will continue. That's why federal workers get up in the morning - to serve the American people.

Federal work can be stressful. But so too is it rewarding.

Ask the nurse in a veterans hospital who tends to serious war wounds. Ask the Homeland Security officer who investigates terrorist threats. Ask the federal scientist who researches cures for cancer.

At the end of their day, any of these federal workers may come home to his or her family and say, "I had a tough day today." But at the end of their career, every federal worker will look back on their lives and know that in their lifetime, they made America a little bit better.

John Berry is director of the Office of Personnel Management. He has served in the role since 2009. Berry's column is part of Federal News Radio's special report, Managing Morale.


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