Cutback proposals pose leadership dilemma for federal managers
One of HR consultants' favorite talking points amid the recession, as companies have been cutting salaries, slashing bonuses and trimming benefits, went something like this. Pay, they told managers scrambling amid the downturn, is not really as important as you think. Surveys show that what people really value is feeling like they're part of their company's mission or that they're doing something that matters to the world.
In other words, when there are pressures on pay, don't worry about it too much and work on boosting their sense of purpose instead. Whether or not that works in the canyons of Wall Street or the streets of Silicon Valley is debatable; but for many private-sector managers, calling on people's sense of purpose at least represents a largely untapped reserve of motivation.
But what happens when there's already a strong sense of purpose and pressures on pay, and the latter is expected to get worse? That's the leadership dilemma likely to be faced by many managers in the federal workforce, which finds itself in the cross-hairs of a controversial deficit panel's recommendations and a newly empowered Republican-dominated Congress focused on cutting government spending.
It is a long-held stereotype that federal workers are paid too much. In reality, while low-level U.S. employees are paid better than their private-sector peers, higher-level ones are not. Already, reports Joe Davidson in this story in the Post, federal workers average about 24 percent less pay than their counterparts in the private sector, and that gap that has increased in the past year. The calls for cutbacks, he writes, has created "an image of bloated, budget-busting feds that sharply conflicts with the public service motivation that really drives" many federal workers.
The cutbacks the deficit commission's chairmen recommend may go nowhere, of course. Many of their other proposals, from cutting the mortgage tax deduction to increasing the Social Security retirement age, may never gain real traction. But with the wind at the backs of GOP lawmakers, federal workforce reductions--both in size and in benefits--could be tangible. Government employees could see frozen salaries, trimmed retirement benefits and halted bonus levels.
I'm not saying some of these measures might not be essential, given the economy's current constraints and the imperative need to take steps to control the nation's deficit. But the leadership challenge it will leave federal managers with is different than the one their private-sector peers face when cutbacks and pay trims take place.
Purpose, mission and service are woefully underused reserves of motivation in many private companies. When done right, at least some companies--though of course hardly all--can help their employees see that the products they sell change lives, that the services they offer make a difference to the world. Unaccustomed to thinking that way, it could be an untapped well of morale for employees.
But federal managers face a different challenge. Their workforces are already well aware of the public service they do every day. And reminding them of that will be enough for some. But it may do little to provide new drive or new enthusiasm for the most skilled among them--doctors, scientists, engineers--who are also highly conscious of the pay sacrifice they make, too.
November 12, 2010; 6:01 AM ET |
Federal government leadership
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