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Motivation at work in public service organisations?

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How can organisations possibly foster and sustain a motivated workforce? And to what extent does employees’ work motivation affect the outcome of their work? A new project seeks to answer these questions in the context of public service organisations.

Both practitioners and scholars recognise the significance of a highly motivated workforce on organisational performance. However, despite extensive work on motivation research during the 20th century and into the 21st century, important questions remain unanswered. For example, our knowledge of employee work motivation is largely from private sector evidence, and though frontline public service employees and the organisations they inhabit are often distinguished as a special breed, there is a notable shortage of work motivation studies in the context of public service organisations and the employees who populate them.

A new PhD project by Mogens Jin Pedersen examines the causes and effects of frontline employees’ work motivation using school teachers as a case group. Specifically, the overall research foci of the project are twofold:

First, the project tests the effect of teachers’ work motivation on their students’ educational achievements and on teachers’ coping behaviour. After all, diligence in testing how to stimulate employees’ work motivation is probably better spent elsewhere, if increased work motivation has only minute effects. Pouring water into a glass with a hole in the bottom is probably a waste of water. Likewise, the effects of work motivation precondition the relevance of studying organisational influences on employee work motivation.

Second, the project also investigates how organisational factors (i.e., leadership behaviour, formalized teacher teams, and manager-employee gender-match) influence employee work motivation. Most people would disagree that the same coaching schemes can fine-tune the performance of all sports players. The effects of a given scheme are likely to differ across the sport in question, the type of players, and the particular goals and challenges faced. By the same reasoning, what energizes and directs employees’ work efforts in private-sector organisations might have other effects, if any, in a public-service setting.

The project uses administrative data on schools and students linked with rich survey data on Danish secondary-school teachers and principals, collected by SFI in 2011. The research questions are examined using various estimation methods (e.g., a within-student between-subject approach exploiting a “matched pairs” data feature, school fixed effects, and multinomial logistic regression). Moreover, survey experiments will possibly be conducted.

On these accounts, the project will provide new insights on pertinent questions relating to frontline employees’ work motivation that are either empirically unsubstantiated, unexplored, or both. The findings have pragmatic relevance, as they could help practitioners in deciding the level of effort to expend towards increasing employee work motivation—and, importantly, by what means.

The project is expected to be completed in April 2015.

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