Thursday, April 29, 2010

Finding a Better Carrot for Public Employee Optimal Performance

Finding a Better Carrot for Public Employee Optimal Performance: Understanding Public Service Motivation, Perception and Emotional Intelligence

Paul Tribly, the main character of James Hynes' novel, Kings of Infinite Space, works in a fictional bureaucracy called, Texas Department of General Service. He soon came to the realization that there are zombies lurking around his office. He also found the corpse of a homeless man next to his cubicle who keeps saying “Are we not men?” (Crabtree, 2004). For many public employees, this feeling might be familiar. Employees are motivated to work in public service for many reasons. Motivation is defined as “the drive or energy that compels people to act with energy and persistence toward some goal” (Berman, Bowman, West & Van Wart, p. 195, 2010). The story of Paul Tribly and its queer public service motivation comes to readily come to ming this week as I read the following informed journal which I tried to summarize below:

A. The Impact of Public Service Motivation on Job Satisfaction and Turnover Intentions

Leonard Bright (2007) in his article titled “Does Public Service Motivation really make a difference on the Job satisfaction and Turnover Intentions of Public Employees” seeks to answer the question of the degree of impact of public service motivation (PSM) on job satisfaction and turnover intentions of public employees. He defined PSM as “altruistic intentions that motivate individuals to serve the public interest” (p.151). The subjects of his study are two hundred and five (205) public employees selected from public health care agency located in the states of Indiana, Kentucky, and Oregon. The study finds that PSM is significantly and positively related to Person-Organization (P-O) fit; and P-O fit was found to be significantly related to job satisfaction. P-O fit was also found to be related to turnover intentions of the respondents. Most importantly however, when P-O fit was taken into account, public service motivation had no significant relationship to job satisfaction, and turnover intentions.

What I took out of this study, is that PSM, might be a good recruitment tool, but may not be the best retention tool for human resource managers, when P-O fit is an issue. It is imperative that managers need to constantly ensure that employees are in the right job, the fact that an employee expresses a desire for public service is not a reason to put him/her in a job he is ill-suited for. One needs to note however that the subjects of the study are mostly public health care employees, a group well known for high rate of burnouts and turnover due to the nature of their task (Branin & Griemel, 1997).

B. Between Motivation, Worker Attitudes and the Perception of Effective Public Service

The second article I read this week on the similar topic is by the dynamic duo of Boardman & Sundquist (2008). They derived their data from the National Administrative Studies Project II, which surveyed managers in information management at state-level health and human service agencies. The authors were motivated for this study by the notion that perceived public service efficacy (PPSE) and its conceptual precursors could motivate public servants, based on the assumptions that workers care about providing useful public services and as such that care ultimately affect the levels of their motivation-related variables.
The study finds that PPSE is related to organizational commitment and job satisfaction, and negatively related to role ambiguity. They found that its impact is substantial, even edging out those of well-established variables-organizational commitment, and role ambiguity in their basic model. They however, admitted a fundamental flaw common with all survey research: the risk of “Common source bias” (p. 531). They hoped that future research will use multiple source data sources rather than a single survey.

C. Who are the Public Employees with High Levels of PSM?

This is the question Leonard Bright (2005) again seeks to answer in his article titled “Public Employees with High Levels of Public Service Motivation: Who are they, where are they, and what do they want?” The article builds on theoretical framework of PSM proposed more than a decade earlier by Perry and Wise (1990). The article goal was to describe public employees with high levels of PSM in terms of their personal characteristics, management level and monetary preferences. The data for the research was obtained by job survey mailed to randomly selected public employees of a large county government in the State of Oregon.

The results of the research revealed that employees with high levels of PSM were significantly more likely to be female, managers, and likely to have greater levels of education than were public employees with lower levels of PSM; but the author admitted that the study may have undersampled men. The latter may explain the obvious disparity with the author’s finding in 2007 referenced above. I agreed with the author’s view that public service managers need to identify workers who are interested in tangible rewards and those who are motivated by altruistic PSM related motives.

D. Impact of Emotional Intelligence and Organizational Politics on Public Employees

Vigoda-Gadot & Meisler (2010), in their article titled “Emotions in Management and the Management of Emotions: The impact of emotional intelligence and organizational politics on public sector employees” used data obtained from two municipalities in Israel to argue that emotional intelligence (EI) has a moderating role in the relationship between organizational politics (OP), and emotional commitment (EC). One of the most salient findings of this study was the direct relationship established between EI, and job satisfaction and the opportunity it gives to personnel managers as a tool for performance indicator. The result however finds negative relationship between EI, and burnout, exit intentions, and negligent behaviors.

Again, it is imperative that generalizing this study without any regard to context may be an overreach; whilst EI may be a relevant consideration in job performance and efficiency of law enforcement and other security agencies workers (Turner, 2009) it may not make any difference for example, to an information analyst with the City of Spokane.


I found all the above reading informative and enlightening. They gave me an opportunity for introspection as a public servant. I have had to ask myself all week, if I am truly motivated by altruistic motives in my work as public defender. The joy and satisfaction I found in my work are often when a ninety year old lady accost me at a gas station, thanking me for saving her grandson from a life of drug after I talked to him in court.

But very often, I look at my job, like Paul Tribly, haunted by the ghost of those I could have helped and make a difference in their lives as public servant. At the same time, there have been occasions when I do wish that I am in private practice making money to secure my family’s future. The lesson I found here for human resource managers in public service is to be a little more cautious with monetary incentives and other tangible rewards, if we manage solely by stick and carrot, we will only get a part of the energy and talent that people have to offer. The fact that an employee has a high PSM is not a reason to assign him just any task or job he is ill suited to do.