UK: IM - SOUNDING BOARD - OVER AND ABOVE THE CALL OF DUTY. - It's hissing down with rain. Both kids are down with a cold. The car's MOT report has just written off the promised respite of a holiday. A careful report - which took hours to prepare - on a n

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's hissing down with rain. Both kids are down with a cold. The car's MOT report has just written off the promised respite of a holiday. A careful report - which took hours to prepare - on a new approach to policing the 'patch' has been returned from the boss with the legend 'Seen and Noted' and no obvious disturbance of the pages below the paper clip. The black eye caused by the yob's boot is yellowing off but the memory and the irritation of the description 'minor assault' advanced by desk-bound solicitors still smarts. The inspector asks you - 'because you do it so well, Pat' - to go and tell Mrs Green that her son has been killed in a road accident.

What is it that inspires human beings to go that extra yard, when the heart and the legs shout 'No'? What is it that makes people achieve what they first thought was impossible? An article of this length can but offer a wine-tasting from a vast cellar of motivational ideas. The metaphor is apt enough because both motivator and motivated sometimes need some extra bottle.

Public sector employees, perhaps above all these days, need champions - people who are prepared to stand up and speak on behalf of those they work for, people who are prepared to take on the power-players of the establishment in a bid to put across the position of the front-line deliverer of service. The corollary to this is a leader who is out and about sufficiently on the ground to be capable of appreciating first-hand what at least some of the contemporary pressures and gremlins are.

This will, in itself, contribute to motivation in another key direction: valuing the people in one's organisation. Visiting them in their time if they have to work awkward shifts is better than a nine-to-five visit. But mere visiting and listening are not sufficient: action arising out of questions asked and suggestions made is essential to the process of valuing staff.

Other means are found in the now commonly established user-groups which help to equip service-deliverers to do what they are meant to do, rather than some prescriptive, impractical advice issued from a remote HQ. In the same vein, consumer panels can be created and used to vet internal memoranda, instructions or video news while they are still in draft form. This ensures that the words make sense to the people who have to put them into practice.

It takes courage for those bosses whose own front-line experience has grown out of date to admit it; yet matter-of fact disclosure of personal vulnerability and feelings is realistic and adds to a leader's integrity. It allows the more junior grades to feel comfortable about revealing their own weaknesses - so that these failings can be worked on. It takes leadership off a pedestal and demystifies it, making it more attainable by those who follow - in both senses of the word.

It also draws, both symbolically and actually, strategy-makers and policy-implementers closer together, with at least a chance of greater corporatism - though there are no guarantees.

Such chances are improved by the accessibility of the most senior grades of the organisation - and this is not just about something called an open-door policy. Such a policy is often a complete fiction and it's usually bad from a time management point of view. Accessibility is more to do with the open-mindedness of the leader who, along with making time for people, comes to discussion tables prepared to be held accountable, to admit being wrong and to change policies or practices. This promotes similar openness in staff who frequently will simply not say what they truly believe and go away thinking as badly of themselves as they do of the gaffer.

Accessibility, then, is physical as well as emotional. The latter is infinitely more rare and makes bosses feel distinctly edgy. However, they have to offer the lead if they are to be in touch with and to value the feelings of hard-pushed, overstretched people with whom they work. At the core of this emotional accessibility is trust. With trust, people grow. If they are not trusted, motivation and creativity wither on the vine. People who are not trusted may not do anything wrong; they may simply not do anything at all.

People who are trusted sometimes do get things wrong but mistakes are growth-points if properly handled. They can be costly and embarrassing but must be encouraged if creative potential and productivity are to be realised.

In responding to inevitable errors, evenhandedness and consistency are marvellous motivators. Shouting and stand-up reprimands may result in instant obedience but they don't motivate half as well as sitting down and expressing disappointment and quietly but firmly negotiating goals for future performance. And up-front acceptance of one's own contribution to the cock-up is equally powerful.

In all of this, those who are led want a leader who is there. This is never more true than when the going is tough, when budgets diminish or storm clouds gather. Being there provides marvellous character-building opportunities. But character growth - if we are to sustain motivation - must not be at the expense of rationality. Hard decisions have to be made, but are made better if they are always tempered by careful thought and by being kept informed by those who know. Equally, and from the opposite direction, staff will not be well motivated if sensitivity in decision-makers is allowed to become paralysis.

Current public sector preoccupation with league-tables may motivate but care has to be taken that it is motivation towards quality as well as quantity. 'What gets measured gets done' is the task. Equally important is the process: 'What gets recognised gets done well'.

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