In a recent team building class for a federal agency, the participants got into a heated debate about government workers who are complacent or unmotivated.

First we had the usual debate about whether a leader can motivate someone or not, coming to the usual conclusion that an employee must motivate herself; but a leader can create the conditions for that to happen.

Then we got into a more interesting discussion about the stereotypes surrounding government workers and their work ethic, the difficulty in firing them, and whether the government attracts people who are already unmotivated, or makes them that way after years of working in a certain environment.  Some people said that lazy people who want job security go to work for the government.  Others said that years of working in the same job with little change and no focus on career movement make people burned out and so once they get close to retirement age, they become “retired in place” while still on the job.

What seems strange to me is that with all the work I’ve done with federal agencies lately (and it’s a lot), I’ve never met any of these mysteriously unmotivated people.  Everyone talks about them, but they aren’t in my workshops.  The people in my workshops all participate vigorously in discussions and activities about how they can move their organizations forward.  Is that because unmotivated people don’t go to training?  I doubt that; sometimes I’m working with a team in which every member has been mandated to attend.  My suspicion is that these people aren’t really unmotivated.  They just look that way in their natural habitat, because their leadership no longer bothers to give them anything interesting or challenging to do.   When they come to a class or a meeting with me, people get into discussions about interesting and challenging things they could do and the so-called unmotivated people perk up and start participating with enthusiasm.

There is a message for leadership here, and I’m sure you can see what it is.  Stop perpetuating the stereotypes.  Give people something stimulating to do and let them do it.

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