Motivating Public Employees

Marc Esteve and his colleague Christian Schuster studied empirical evidence of motivating employees, what works, what doesn’t work.

A literature study about what enhances motivation for public empoyees, led to the following model:

The main body of research is around Pro-social motivation, less about Group/organization identification, few about Incentives and Relatedness, some about Enjoyment, but none about Warm glow, the result of feeling good when helping others.

For decades employees have reported that the meaningfulness of work is more important than any other factor. The assumption is that leaders can boost meaningfulness by clearly communicating the vision of the organization. The mission and vision of an organization are timeless, far-reaching and grand in scale. While day-to-day responsibilities, in order to be manageable, are quite the contrary: time-constrained, narrowly defined and small in scale.

Therefore, it is important for employees to understand how their daily activities are associated with the organization’s ultimate aspirations. There is a potential tension between meaningfulness and manageability and not all tasks can be clearly linked to ultimate aspirations. It is, however, important to link employees’ tasks to the concrete organizational goals, that then ultimate connect to the organization’s aspirations. To show how this can be implemented, Marc used the example of NASA as described by Andrew Carton (Wharton) in his paper “I’m Not Mopping the Floors, I’m Putting a Man on the Moon: How NASA Leaders Enhanced the Meaningfulness of Work by Changing the Meaning of Work”.

Finally, Marc shared 10 lessons from the research he did:

  1. Ensure that human resource management practices – including recruitment, pay, training and job design – foster public service motivation: Marc recommended to rely on traditional rather than performance related pay schemes. The training of employees also needs to focus on public service values. Meeting the beneficiaries of their work can be very motivating for employees.
  2. Define and communicate a clear mission for your organization, set individual goals and tasks related to this mission, and show employees how their goals and tasks help mission attainment.
  3. Provide feedback to employees on 1) performance, 2) opportunities for learning and 3) impact on beneficiaries: It is very important to provide holistic feedback.
  4. Empower employees by enhancing job autonomy and participation in organizational decision-making: empowering employees entails a shift in decision making.
  5. Ensure that rules and procedures are effective and have a clear purpose which employees are aware of: red tape is one of the main de-motivators. Certain rules and procedures, on the contrary, have a clear sense and purpose. This green tape can really enhance motivation.
  6. Promote a supportive work environment and culture
  7. Make work (more) fun: not just by introducing fun in between work, but by making actual tasks that are important more fun.
  8. Carefully design self-interested non-pecuniary incentives: Marc stressed that more research was needed on the complex effects of such non-pecuniary, self-interested incentives in public. They offer a potentially cost-effective means of motivating staff in times of budget crises, but they may also backfire. Public administration scholarship to date, however, provides little guidance on these nuances of non-pecuniary rewards.
  9. Make your employees feel good about their pro-social impact: it has not yet been studied sufficiently how to use warm glow motivation for public service employees.
  10. Make your team members care about each other: here again more research is needed to study how this affects public service employees, but it is clear that strengthening relatedness, creates a psychologically safer environment and reduces stress.

During the Q&A the first focus was on the perceived security of employment and whether or not there is a substitute for this. That perceived security is especially important for public service employees at the national level, but less at local, regional or international levels. It is very important to communicate and recruit talent based on the pro-social motivation, rather than to focus on this job security.

Marc and his colleague have done similar research in the private sector and they could identify that for private sectore employees the financial incentives are more important, and in terms of intrinsic motivation, helping others would have a much lower impact on their motivation.

When asked the question whether he had come across organizations that incentivised the wrong types of behaviours, Marc replied that he had indeed evidence of organizations that incentivised employee objectives that didn’t contribute to the organizational goals. This lack of a clear link with the organizational goals can lead to distrust in managers, to stress and lower motivation.

Another challenge in international organizations can be to keep the motivation high despite the lack of career opportunities. Here again Marc stressed the importance of making employees realize how their work contributes to the mission of the organization and ultimately helps society. A good example can be found in Adam Grant’s article describing motivating employees of a call centre:

For more information on his research, please contact

You can find his book at

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