What motivates employees to work where they do? How can leaders use this information to engage and retain their workforce? Here’s how leaders can engage three employee profiles.

One of the most persistent questions facing leaders of government organizations is how to keep employees engaged, productive, and committed to serving the public. Leaders who understand and address what motivates their employees are more likely to hold on to their best people and maximize performance. In many cases, employee engagement rests on how well a manager understands employees, their reasons for working in the government sector, and how that information can be used to address employee needs.

The Center for Creative Leadership and Booz Allen Hamilton conducted research to identify the reasons why people choose and remain in public service. The results shed new light on what drives employees in public institutions, and how leaders can keep employees engaged. Our research found that there are three profiles that describe different career orientations—mission focused, career focused, and those “stuck” with no other options.

Three Styles of Motivation

One way to understand employee engagement is to group people according to these motives and to look at similarities and differences among the three groups of employees. Many federal government employees are highly mission focused, and their leaders frequently rely on the mission to motivate them. From warfighters to emergency responders to scientists, the mission is the shared goal that breaks down barriers, drives collaboration, and sustains careers through immense challenges and tangles of red tape. A second powerful motive is personal ambition to rise in the hierarchy. Career advancement and compensation are powerful motivators for this group. Third, many people remain in a given job simply as a means of support, and for a variety of reasons feel locked into the organization and unable to find other employment options. In essence, these folks are stuck working where they do because they perceive that they have no other viable possibilities.

Leaders who understand these three orientations will be more equipped to use available resources to motivate their teams. To help leaders understand how these orientations to the current job affect perceptions and behavior, we asked 1,133 people employed in the United States between July 2010 and October 2010 to tell us whether they were in their current position because of the mission of the organization, because staying in the job furthered their personal career, or because they currently saw no other options for employment. At the same time, we asked them about their

  • commitment to the organization
  • job and pay satisfaction
  • perceived support from the organization
  • personal motivation
  • feelings about the organizational structure
  • opportunities for development
  • intention to remain with the organization
  • beliefs about what leaders should do and be.

Our sample included 326 federal employees and 807 respondents from organizations outside the federal government; this allowed us to compare their career orientations. Although the two groups of employees were quite similar, there were some differences with regard to level and age. There were more C-level employees and executives in the nonfederal sample and more managers and professionals in the federal sample. There were more Baby Boomers in the federal sample and more Gen Xers in the nonfederal sample. There were no significant differences in the gender or racial distribution of the two groups. Across the total sample, 51 percent were male and 49 percent were female. Racially, the sample was 79 percent white, 9 percent black, 4 percent Asian, and 7 percent other.

Out of the federal government employees, 52 percent responded that they were motivated to stay primarily because of their organization’s mission; 27 percent responded that they were motivated to stay primarily because of career opportunities; and 21 percent responded that they stayed because they had no other attractive options.

Out of 807 participants working outside the federal government (in for-profit and not-for-profit organizations), 53 percent responded that they were motivated to stay in their current jobs primarily because of their organization’s mission; 25 percent responded that they were motivated to stay primarily because of the career opportunities; and 22 percent responded that they were staying in their current jobs because they had no other attractive options.

The similarity across federal and nonfederal organizations indicated that mission-focused and career-focused employees were found in equal proportion in federal and nonfederal sectors. Similarities were found across other groups: at all levels of the organization, in both genders, and across generations (Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y) and races. In other words, career motivations did not differ according to whether an employee worked for a federal government or a private organization.

On average, both mission- and career-focused employees reported being committed to the organization, having high job satisfaction, and being strongly motivated. They reported that they felt supported by their supervisors and the organization, believed they had good opportunities to develop within the organization, and were unlikely to leave their organizations. Fundamentally, leaders benefit by working with both types of employees because they are committed, intrinsically motivated, and intend to stay with the organization.

How Do Mission-Focused and Career-Focused Groups Differ?

Mission-focused employees felt more supported by the organization than career-focused employees. Higher levels of perceived organizational support have been shown to be related to higher job satisfaction, lower stress, higher employee commitment, greater retention, and higher performance—all of which result in greater employee and organizational effectiveness.

Mission-focused employees reported feeling greater commitment to the organization than career-focused employees. Higher levels of organizational commitment have been shown to relate to reduced turnover and increased job involvement.

Mission-focused employees reported greater job satisfaction than career-focused employees. Higher levels of job satisfaction have been shown to relate to lower absenteeism and more organizational citizenship behaviors, both of which improve organizational productivity.

Mission-focused employees reported somewhat higher intrinsic, and lower extrinsic, motivation than career-focused employees—and placed slightly lower importance on pay. Intrinsic motivation comes from pursuing personally meaningful objectives and is closely associated with productivity, engagement, and innovation. Extrinsic motivation comes from pursuing goals that are motivated by demands, requirements, or obligations. A subtle difference appeared in the type of motivation that mission- and career-focused people bring to their jobs.

These distinctions between mission- and career-focused employees highlight different motivations, perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors. Leaders who recognize and leverage the value of both mission- and career-focused employees in both federal government and private industry, and at all levels of management responsibility, will benefit their organizations and their employees.

No Options: A Different View

Compared with mission- and career-focused employees, employees who described themselves as having “no other options” for employment appeared stuck in many ways. These employees reported lower commitment to their organizations, lower intrinsic motivation, less job satisfaction, and less support from their organizations and supervisors than mission- or career-focused employees.

They reported that the systems in their organizations limited the effectiveness of their own leadership behavior, no matter what they tried to do; and they believed they had less support from their organizations and supervisors than did mission- and career-focused employees. Despite these differences, employees reporting “no options” did not report working fewer hours than mission- or career-focused employees. They did, however, report themselves more likely to quit than mission- and career-focused employees.

Development Opportunities Spark Motivation, Engagement

How can leaders motivate and engage mission- and career focused employees—and what can leaders do with employees who feel stuck with no options? Employees are motivated both by the opportunities they have and by their leaders’ behaviors. Effective leaders in all types of organizations can influence employee motivation by identifying good learning and development opportunities.

Leaders will be able to motivate a wider range of employees by ensuring that they provide opportunities that appeal to both mission- and career-focused employees, and that they look for ways to alter the perceptions—or the realities—of employees stuck with no options.

Learning and Development Opportunities

One of the most important actions leaders can take is to help employees find opportunities to learn and grow. Opportunities to develop new and better skills are critical to motivation and retention in the workplace. Our research indicates that having access to learning opportunities is strongly related to being engaged at work for both mission-focused and career-focused employees. Both types reported that they had access to learning opportunities, but mission-focused employees reported having more access and also felt more committed to the organization than did career-focused employees.

These findings likely reflect a self-reinforcing spiral. In part because of access to learning and developmental activities, mission-focused people identify and pursue developmental opportunities, thus acquiring new skills and experiences. They then leverage their increased capabilities for both professional advancement and organizational impact. Career-focused people appear to benefit from a similar spiral, even if their spiral is not as strong.

Connecting the employee with the opportunity to have organizational impact and continued development demonstrates a commitment to that employee—whether mission or career focused. Critically, this combination of opportunity and commitment can keep high potentials and high performers from sensing they are stuck with no options. This combination is especially important for employee engagement when few actual promotions are available.

People “stuck with no options” are likely to be more difficult to move into this virtuous spiral. This research found “no options” respondents to be neutral about whether they had the opportunity to develop but were positive about learning within the organization in general. Supporting them with more opportunities to develop could tip the scales and open doors to new perceptions of opportunities—and consequently to new attitudes and behavior.

A no-options employee may have reached a career plateau, with no apparent prospects—at least from his or her vantage point. No-options employees may have become disconnected with the mission, possibly by losing “line of sight” to how their job contributes to the overall mission of the organization. In cases where an employee can take action to overcome career challenges or reconnect with the mission, leaders can help “unstick” employee perceptions by identifying valuable opportunities and leading effectively.

Mentoring and Coaching

Employees can be motivated by being provided with the opportunity to have a mentor or coach. Leaders can connect staff with mentors or coaches who can help the employee identify new opportunities, learn strategies for advancement, and call the attention of higher level executives to them.

Mentoring and coaching provide powerful complements to other learning opportunities by sustaining and expanding on their benefits over time. Further, mentors themselves benefit from engaging in a mentoring relationship, and leaders can motivate even senior people in organizations by providing opportunities to mentor junior employees. (See articles on mentoring, pp. 48 and 53.)

Recognition

One of the simplest ways a leader can motivate others is to recognize effort and contributions. Unlike pay raises and promotions, a verbal “thank you” or an email to share the mission impact of a recent project tap into the internal motivations that are inherent to the virtuous spiral of both mission and career motivation. Leaders who share credit for mission impact and note the positive career directions of others foster a positive, motivating climate.

Leadership

Effective leadership is critical to motivation and engagement, but the question is often what type of leadership is most likely to be motivating. Our research shows that all employees (mission, career, and no options) believed that the same characteristics result in effective leadership: charisma, team orientation, encouraging participation, and being humane.

While all types of people believed that these characteristics result in effective leadership, they differ as to degree. As shown in the chart above, all types of people believed that leaders who are charismatic, humane oriented, and team oriented are more effective. However, mission-focused people reported that each is more important for good leadership than do career-focused or no options people.

Critical competencies for leader effectiveness include sharing information, providing help, encouraging collaborative behavior among team members, and having the ability to inspire commitment to values or to a mission. A common thread among these competencies is the emphasis on the interpersonal nature of leadership that enables leaders to adapt to the different employee orientations. Leaders who bring charisma, humane and team orientation, and participative approaches that enable them to adapt to different orientations will be better able to motivate and retain employees.

Leaders cannot afford to disregard what motivates and connects employees to their organizations. Managers must be able to adapt their styles to motivate mission-focused and career-focused employees, and to re-engage employees who are stuck without options. Leaders who succeed stand to realize meaningful, long-term advantages for their organization by understanding the career motivations of different types of employees.