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On Motivating Knowledge Workers in the Federal Government

Posted December 22, 2011 9:20 PM by Mark Cutler

I think I am like most people in that I use some of my holiday season downtime to catch up on leisure reading I haven't had the opportunity to get to over the previous months. So, when I found myself flipping through my latest issue of the Defense Acquisition Research Journal (DARJ), I was pleasantly surprised to see an article titled "Motivating the Knowledge Worker," by the Defense Intelligence Agency's (DIA) Dr. David E. Frick.

The title immediately drew me to the article because it is the same topic Dan Pink will be discussing at Ascendant's Mission-Driven Management Summit (MDMS), March 6-8, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

If you have read Pink's book DRIVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, you'll know that he has spends the majority of the book sifting through years of literature on motivation to demonstrate that what managers are taught to do to motivate employees is actually incorrect – extrinsic motivators, particularly money, are not effective.

In his article, available on the web from DARJ, Frick discusses his research which leads him to a similar conclusion with respect to the "knowledge workers" in the Defense acquisition community. He begins by pointing out the special case of public sector workers (which applies to social sector / nonprofit workers as well) that their motivation at work differs from private sector workers because they desire to serve the public, among other things.

I found one aspect of Frick's study of 132 federal workers most revealing: Their list of positive and negative factors that influence their work. He lists 18 top positive factors and 14 top negative factors, but I will share just the top five for each.

The top five positive factors were: (1) meaningful work; (2) belief in mission; (3) public service; (4) opportunity to advance; and (5) relationship with coworkers. "Total compensation" was number 16 on the list. The top five negative factors were: (1) insufficient resources; (2) bad managers; (3) lack of management support; (4) unwillingness to deal with substandard performers; and (5) difficult commute.

I think Dan Pink's reaction to these two lists would be, "Duh! Of course!" The top five positive factors are all intrinsic and personal to the individual while the top five negative factors all deal with extrinsic factors. That's why efforts to motivate people at work merely through compensation don't work. Until managers come to terms with this, they will continue to have problems motivating their workers.

Filed Under Conference, Motivation

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