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The Authoritative List of the Top 10 Motivators for Federal Workers

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

The State of the Federal Workforce

Today, the U.S. federal government boasts nearly 2 million non-postal, non-seasonal, full-time, permanent employees, around the globe. In fact, it has long been touted as the largest employer in the country, closely followed, by most accounts, by Walmart. But while human capital organizations such as Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCO) Council collaborate on workforce hiring reforms, little has been done to address and nurture the motivations of the millions of federal employees who work to maintain our national security and public safety.


After all, if something isn’t done, and fast, the integrity of our government and its ability to retain key talent will soon be obsolete. As the U.S. federal workforce becomes older, on average, and the feds struggle to attract, develop, and retain top talent in the midst of a national employment resignation, many have started to ask the question, “What exactly do federal employees want?”

“…if something isn’t done, and fast, the integrity of our government and its ability to retain key talent will soon be obsolete”

As such, the following is the authoritative list (in order of importance) of the top 10 predictors of job satisfaction, based on research from responses to the 2019 OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey:


1. Personal Accomplishment

The #1 predictor of job satisfaction. Period. Nothing matters more than feeling good about what you do – we touch on Dr. Ned Hallowell’s concept of the Cycle of Excellence in this article. Federal workers, like all of us, value feeling good about what they do – organizations and managers should emphasize how the civil servant’s work is valued, valuable, and honorable. For most organizations, this requires little effort - public service motivation is a tremendous indicator of not only likelihood to serve in government, but also success and sense of accomplishment. The following predictors will help organizations to ensure they’re getting the most out of already dedicated and talented employees.


2. Liking what one does

Like personal accomplishment, liking the work one does is a significant predictor of job satisfaction. Ok, so what does that mean for managers? It means pay attention. If an employee doesn’t particularly like their work, don’t just ignore it. Find out how to make the job more enjoyable for your employees. If possible, adjust tasks or positions to accommodate employee preferences. Of course, that doesn’t mean it will always be fun, but make sure there’s a “fit” between the employee and their work. Remember, it’s not just a job in federal employment, it’s a calling.

“Remember, it’s not just a job in federal employment, it’s a calling.”

3. Involvement in decisions that affect work

This one is Leadership 101. “Buy-in” demonstrates that you trust your employees and value their input. According to this Forbes article, there are many ways to effectively include employees in decision-making, including suggestion boxes, surveys, and influential committees that report directly to senior leaders. After all, your employees have the intimate knowledge of all the details of the operations and will be more than happy to share their perspectives, if given an open and honest opportunity.


4. Work-life balance

Now, more so than ever, employees of all ages are understanding the value of balancing work with life and have a low threshold for organizations that cannot understand and deliver on common sense equilibrium. Common values have emerged across generations in the workplace: to varying degrees, work-life balance has emerged as a critical factor in retaining talent, and alternate work schedules and telework are important ways to achieve better balance for many employees, regardless of generation.


5. Opportunities for promotion

Some employees are perfectly happy in their current position and wouldn’t mind staying there for their entire career. However, many want to know there are real, competitive opportunities to advance in the organization – and it shows in the impact to civil servants’ job satisfaction. Organizations that recruit, access, develop, and retain relevant talent have a distinct advantage in succession planning and providing promotion opportunities.

“Organizations that recruit, access, develop, and retain relevant talent have a distinct advantage in succession planning and providing promotion opportunities.”

6. Well-used talents

Nothing is more frustrating than twiddling your thumbs in a job beneath your capabilities and potential. Not surprisingly, employees who are mentally unchallenged are not as satisfied with their work as they could be. Talents should be assessed against organizational strategic advantages, then key positions filled with high potential and high performing employees. Offering opportunities to grow and stretch your employees’ developmental opportunities could be as simple as offering broadening assignments, mentorship programs, or targeted training/educational opportunities.


7. Organizational policies and practices

Admittedly, this one is a bit vague and sometimes, perhaps, beyond an organization’s span of control. But there are several ways to identify and revise antiquated and otherwise unhelpful organizational practices and procedures. 1. Ask. Have an open door, hold town halls and listening sessions, or establish a shared electronic space for safely sharing ideas, to start. 2. Do something about it. If it’s in your span of control – act. If it’s not, enlist someone who can.

“Have an open door, hold town halls and listening sessions, or establish a shared electronic space for safely sharing ideas, to start.”

8. Pay

Quite often, federal managers feel their hands are tied with respect to pay for performance. But the truth is there are a variety of tools available to organizations to reward top talent. Recruitment incentives, cash awards and bonuses, time off awards, and quality step increases are just some of the options on the table. How and how often your organization employs these tools says a lot about its culture and regard for its employees. This is a great opportunity to reiterate that this list is in order of magnitude, and the previous 7 predictors are effectively free. Take some time to understand your unique workforce, its needs, and begin implementing from the top of this list AND from top of the organization. That is not to say that pay should not be considered, but keep it in perspective: feds still make 1/3 of private sector pay.


9. Work process empowerment

In my opinion, this is closely related to #3 with this very important distinction: involvement details the level of employee contribution from the bottom up, while empowerment includes the latitude to make decisions. Yet, researchers at the University of Birmingham Business School found that despite the overwhelmingly positive effects on well-being and job satisfaction, “managers remain unwilling to offer employees greater level of autonomy…”


10. Recognition

This brings us to the last and, frankly, least impactful of the authoritative list of the top 10 motivators for federal workers. I realize that this flies in the face of conventional wisdom and your anecdotal experience may vary, but the data don’t lie. Despite being the last on this list, it’s still in the top 10 predictors (and first on the list for some of your employees)! From public recognition, to a sincere vote of appreciation, or any number of formal awards, the good news is that there are infinite ways to simply say, “thank you” for everything you do to serve this nation and its people.


Now what?

Our nation's security and safety rely on retaining the most talented employees in the country. Use this authoritative list of the top 10 motivators for federal workers 1.) with intention and 2.) as a referendum on how your agency, organization, and workplace fulfill the intrinsic and extrinsic needs most important to its people. Employ it as a baseline to evaluate your organizational efforts and employees’ satisfaction with organizational performance. Then, make necessary changes in the organization and remember to assess and follow up with employees to measure effectiveness - our national security and public safety depend on it.

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