6 triggers to motivate employees in the public sector

Marc Esteve

Article based on joint research with Christian Schuster

An interesting job can make work enjoyable and motivate employees to work hard – just as a dull job can make work unenjoyable and demotivating.

With technological innovation, many low-skilled routine tasks (which could be improved through following rules) are increasingly automated or outsourced offshore. However, highly skilled tasks (non-routine work that requires initiative and creativity) represent an increasing share of work.

These shifts implicate that successful organisations require motivated employees to undertake self-directed tasks, adapt to client needs and push for innovation on the front line.

Motivated employees who deliver effective services to the public are crucial for regaining popular trust in government

In the public sector, motivating staff has rarely been more challenging for managers than today

In the public sector, motivating staff has rarely been more challenging for managers than today. Governments face austerity pressures that have curbed pay, increased workloads and led to staff demotivation.

We conducted research into why some public employees are more motivated at work than others. We analysed 141 academic studies on motivation and work performance in the public sector across the world.

Our findings outline six factors that are crucial for motivating public employees. Half of these triggers are motivated by an inner work satisfaction (intrinsic) and half are motivated by external outcomes (extrinsic).

1. Incentives

Out of the six factors we analysed, our findings show that incentives are the most prominent factor for keeping public employees motivated. Employees work hard when they believe that doing so results in a desired outcome. 

Incentives include tangible rewards such as pay, promotion opportunities, maintaining employment, fringe benefits, tax reductions, gifts and physical conditions at work; and intangible incentives include status and prestige, skills development, power and self-esteem (e.g. through praise and recognition).

Incentives are the most prominent factor for keeping public employees motivated

But incentives are not always effective: they only work when employees value the reward and believe that they can and will obtain the reward by putting in the effort.

2. Enjoyment

Scholars discovered the power of incentives through experiments with mice and rats, while rhesus monkeys provided the foundational insights for research on intrinsic motivation. In experiments, they solved puzzles without being given any incentive to do so. They performed because they enjoyed solving puzzles: the "joy of the task was its own reward".

Public employees who are motivated by enjoyment work hard because they enjoy the work. 

Employees in the public sector find their jobs more enjoyable if they can use a greater variety of skills:

  • If they can see the end result of their work.
  • If they see that their work is important to others inside and outside the organisation.
  • If they have autonomy, independence and the control needed to complete tasks.
  • If they get feedback about how well they are doing.

With these job characteristics in place, employees feel responsible for work outcomes, find them meaningful and are more intrinsically motivated to work.

3. Relatedness

Intrinsic motivation also depends on a sense of relatedness to others at work – a desire to feel emotionally connected with others and care for them.

High-quality relationships and interactions with others at work can create this sense of relatedness and thus intrinsically motivate staff in the public sector.

4. Warm glow

Intrinsic motivation may also go beyond the small group of colleagues who employees usually engage with and relate to at work.

Employees may also feel good about helping their organisation and society with their work. In other words, their intrinsic motivation grows from a sense of helping others over and above the social outcomes they attain with their work.

This pleasure of making a difference for others is often termed "warm glow".

5. Pro-social motivation

Employees driven by pro-social motivation are driven to work hard because of the positive outcomes their work produces for society. 

Helping others may, of course, motivate public employees intrinsically and extrinsically at the same time: they may enjoy working (warm glow) and value the outcomes their work attains for society (pro-social motivation).

Public employees may be pro-socially motivated due to affection and compassion

Pro-social motivation can stem from multiple dimensions. Public employees may be pro-socially motivated due to affection and compassion – that is, due to love and concern for others and a desire to protect others. 

Public employees may also be motivated by their identification with public values, such as fairness, social equity, social justice and social responsibility. As a result of this commitment to public values, work that is socially driven becomes a calling for public employees and gives them purpose in life. 

Pro-socially motivated employees may also be driven by altruistic behaviour and personal self-sacrifice for others.

6. Commitment to groups and organisations

As a final source of motivation in our typology, public employees may be motivated to work hard for organisations or groups they identify with and feel a commitment towards.

In line with this logic, a range of studies links organisational commitment to greater job motivation and performance: employees who feel identified with a group or organisation work harder.

Public sector organisations offer excellent environments for organisational commitment and identification.

Lifelong employment offers greater opportunities for managers to develop an "esprit de corps": a feeling of pride and loyalty among staff towards their peer group and a broad commitment to the organisation.

This article is based on research insights published in the book Motivating public employees (Cambridge University Press).

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.