June 20, 2010

Elevating Employee Performance in the Public Sector

Strengthening management capabilities is an essential prerequisite to elevating employee performance.

In today’s economic environment, achieving heightened performance and efficiency is more important than ever in order to improve competitiveness, deliver better service and reduce costs. Motivating employees to give their best effort on the job remains a fundamental—though elusive—ingredient to sustained productivity improvement. Structural transformation may fail to deliver expected results if the underlying factors that drive people performance are not comprehensively addressed, according to a new study by Booz & Company.

“The principles of employee motivation are rarely consistently applied or properly implemented. The key to getting the best from people lies in addressing a set of fundamental ‘hygiene factors’. Only when these are sufficiently attended to can the workforce be further energised to elevate performance through ‘commitment drivers’,” explained Bahjat El-Darwiche a Partner at Booz & Company.

Defining Performance

To understand how hygiene factors and commitment drivers operate, it is first necessary to distinguish between two types of performance:

  • Standard performance is the typical level of output an individual delivers in the course of fulfilling a role. This level of performance is influenced by the hygiene factors, which do not drive productivity, but whose absence can produce negativity and thus destroy motivation.

  • Elevated performance is derived from an individual exerting discretionary effort and ‘going the extra mile’ because of their commitment to the team or organisation and its mission and objectives. Commitment drivers will spur employees to feel motivated and achieve higher levels of performance.“Clearly, organisations would prefer that their employees deliver elevated performance; however, it is a common mistake for organisations to seek to achieve this without getting the hygiene factors right. Commitment drivers, by themselves, cannot lead to improved performance unless the basic hygiene factors are in place first,” stated El-Darwiche.

Setting the Standard: Meeting Basic Hygiene Factors

Hygiene factors are those essential elements that can positively influence individual commitment and willingness to deliver standard performance on the job. Organisations therefore must address three hygiene factors to achieve this:

Management Capability

The most crucial hygiene factor to address is management capability—establishing basic line management practices. These include:

  • Communicating expectations and embedding clear guidelines for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour

  • Using performance management techniques to plan, monitor, and evaluate delivery

  • Recognising good performance, and swiftly managing underperformance

  • Proactively managing team cohesion, and emphasising the impact of individual behavior on team performance and targets

  • Equipping individuals and teams with the relevant support and skills necessary to effectively perform their roles

  • Building stable and productive working relationships and networks with other teams or parts of the organisation

Solid management capability is an essential prerequisite to supporting the commitment drivers that lead to elevated performance. However, according to a recent ORC International report, the public sector has a poor perception of management compared with the private sector.

Pay and Conditions

Perception of pay levels, rather than the absolute level of pay, is what matters most to employees. It is therefore important that employees receive a level of pay and conditions that they perceive to be fair and adequate for their role. Base pay is one of the most tangible ways in which people measure how valued they are by their employer and how they are positioned relative to others. Organisations therefore typically benchmark key roles against selected comparator organisations, to ensure that pay scales remain fair and competitive. “Simply increasing pay does not directly lead to increased effort. In fact, this often produces the opposite result because a person’s interest becomes focused on the payment rather than on performing the task,” commented El-Darwiche.

Organisations can positively influence staff satisfaction and become more competitive, without automatically raising salaries. For instance, employees may be willing to accept a reduced base salary relative to equivalent jobs in the market in favour of more flexible working conditions and greater holiday benefits. “This is an area in which public sector and non-profit employers have traditionally been able to differentiate themselves from the private sector to attract and retain staff,” he continued.

Job Security

At an organisational level, job security is influenced by the state of the economy and prevailing business conditions. Currently, job security in many organisations is low as a result of the weak economic climate. Concerns about job security increase feelings of pressure and stress levels. Individuals perceiving a low level of job security are more likely to seek greater stability and pursue alternative employment with a higher level of security.

Public sector organisations are often criticised for providing too much job security and failing to address underperformance. This leads to substandard performance by some individuals, and can frustrate other team members who are affected by the poor performance. “Managing employee expectations regarding job security is the key to achieving and maintaining standard performance. Organisations can manage expectations by defining clear objectives and providing honest feedback. It is also important to ensure that perceptions of job security are aligned with reality,” explained El-Darwiche.

Elevating Performance: Building Commitment

Once hygiene factors are in place, organisations can effectively invest in the commitment drivers to deliver elevated performance. There are three commitment drivers that are particularly important in motivating discretionary effort.

Employee Connectivity

To deliver elevated performance, individuals must feel their actions directly contribute to the overall performance of the organisation, team, and customers they are serving. This is the most challenging, yet most effective driver of commitment and performance improvement. Employee connectivity is often stronger in the public sector, where many employees are focused on delivering public policy and services and are willing to go the extra mile as a result.

Personal Recognition

Recognising individuals for good performance is a powerful way to reinforce and sustain elevated performance. This can include both financial and non-financial rewards.

Successful organisations employ a systemic performance management approach, involving regular performance discussions with clear objectives at organisation, team, and individual levels. Furthermore, regular conversations ensure that poor performance is discovered early and its consequences are addressed immediately. This approach requires good management capabilities. “Aligning compensation to employee performance has been shown to have an impact on staff performance and should form part of a coherent performance management regime,” stated El-Darwiche.

Skill Development

Employees who recognise that their employer is willing to invest in their personal development and growth will be more willing to give their best for the organisation. This development should include both high-quality opportunities for on-the-job learning and more structured training interventions. “It is crucial that this training is targeted and useful. Courses with little relevance or applicability to the employee’s work waste time and resources,” El-Darwiche said.


By targeting hygiene factors and commitment drivers together, organisations can boost their employees’ willingness to exert discretionary effort and improve productivity. In order to encourage individuals to apply discretionary effort, organisations must ensure that all three hygiene factors are fully addressed before tackling commitment drivers. It is important for organisations to be able to diagnose their particular problems and prioritise solutions accordingly. Management capability therefore is the pivotal hygiene factor without which commitment drivers will fail to deliver.

In today’s economic environment these issues can no longer be ignored. Public sector organisations need to focus on and build up their management capabilities while having an inherent advantage regarding their commitment drivers. In contrast, private sector organisations need to focus on their commitment drivers—especially employee connectivity—if they are to engage employees and weather the economic storm.