Motivating front-line government service employees

I read an article on Forbes today about motivating employees, To Motivate Employees, Apply This Scientific Rule Of Leadership. In the first part of the article the author provides a list of focus areas leaders should use in obtaining optimal results from their employees.

Coaxing a great performance from your employees requires you to get quite a few things right. Here are five:

1. Proper hiring (the better term is “selection”)
2. Great training and a well thought out program of reinforcement throughout the year
3. A sense of organizational purpose that is made clear throughout the organization
4. Clear service standards that provide guidelines to your employees for situations guaranteed to come up
5. Proper technology that supports, streamlines, and extends the reach of their work

But none of this will take you where you want to go without one more ingredient: employee autonomy.

Employee autonomy in:

• Flexibility in when the job gets done (don’t tell me that parents who need to work an unconventional schedule are lesser workers; it just ain’t true).
• Even more important, flexibility in how the job gets done: both on a day-to-day basis and in having a part in designing the overall structure of the work activities. This is an ethical imperative. If you don’t involve people in designing the jobs to which they devote their waking hours, you’re using employees as mere tools, for their labor. Even though you’re paying them, this kind of using of people is unconscionable.

You want customer relations to be on the shoulders of your employees. But as long as you’re defining every little thing, and rewarding/punishing based on seemingly arbitrary and thus, inevitably, gamed criteria, you won’t get them to carry that responsibility.

Their viewpoint will soon resemble the jaded flight attendant’s attitude on a big, legacy carrier who told me not long ago, ‘‘The more emphatically Management comes up with new i’s to dot and t’s for me to cross, the less seriously I take them. I know these rules will be gone within the year, and a new group of regs will take their place.’’

The first five are fairly straightforward approaches that require some effort from leaders, but the last one, autonomy, is the 500 lb gorilla in the room for front-line service employees in the government. How does a leader/manager provide more autonomy to employees, especially the entry level government service employees where it seems like everything you do is managed by some law, regulation, SOP, etc?

Here are a couple of thoughts worth exploring on how to improve employee autonomy:
1) Providing the opportunity for employees to design the workflow, and provide opportunities to improve it.
2) Provide employees with the flexibility to solve certain problems related to customer service. These would have to be defined by management and a couple of different alternatives that employees could use to address these problems. If you want to encourage customer service, empower them to solve customer problems.
3) Teach employees the boundaries of their job, and allow them to accomplish their job within those boundaries. (This requires a lot of effort and trust from leaders.)
4) Everyone responds to incentives. Incentivize the correct customer service behaviors. If you are going to use metrics to do this, ensure they are the metric that are tied to improving customer service. For an example of how poorly chosen metrics and standards can harm an organization and its customer base, see the VA.

I’d be interested in your opinion.

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