Motivating development professionals: Advice from experts

EU aid chief Kristalina Georgieva in the Central African Republic. Directly engaging with country-based and regional staff on a frequent basis can certainly help senior management understand the challenges their organizations are facing, and determine a proper response. Photo by: European Commission / CC BY-ND

In a recent survey of development professionals and executives who are closely involved with the Australian aid program, high staff turnover was identified as the most serious impediment toward aid effectiveness.

Over the past year, political changes affected staff turnover at the Australian Agency for International Development, a problem exacerbated by AusAID’s recent integration into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Rather than wait to see whether their jobs would be on the chopping block, some have decided to cut their losses now and look for opportunities elsewhere.

High staff turnover is not only a problem for aid agencies undergoing transition. In the past month, more than 1,000 jobs were posted on by nongovernmental organizations and development consultancies, some of which were a result of vacated positions that human resource managers scramble to fill.

Apart from job insecurity and loss of benefits, there are several factors that cause development professionals to leave their organizations, such as feeling underappreciated by their supervisors or not seeing a clear career path. It is important for senior executives to address these problems not only to reduce turnover rates, but also for the simple reason that motivated employees are happy and productive. If staff members understand their role within the organization and their performance is valued, they are far more likely to contribute to an organization’s mission, goals and targets.

So how can management help keep their employees motivated? Here are a few tips that both managers and employees should understand and follow.

Establish clear feedback mechanisms

A common grievance of senior development executives is that the first time they find out about team member problems is during exit interviews, “by which time it may be too late to rectify issues that are the biggest cause of discontent,” Samuel Gichuki, international staffing specialist at World Vision International, told Devex.

The frustrating situation can be avoided if the appropriate two-way communication channels — both formal and informal — are in place. Employers should proactively inform staff of any decisions or developments that affect their work, position, compensation or benefits. At the same time, employees should have access to venues where they can express their dissatisfaction with these decisions or developments.

“Beyond regular staff meetings, development executives should invite staff to freely voice their concerns and, ideally, propose solutions,” Bekele Geleta said. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies secretary-general suggests sending out annual surveys to gauge staff expectations on management and solicit ideas to improve information sharing, collaboration and cohesiveness between various teams. Such surveys, however, would only prove “credible and effective” if team members see there is an effort on management’s part to follow up and address the findings, Geleta stressed.

Regardless of the type of feedback mechanism, Gichuki said that in order to build the necessary trust between management and staff, it is important for senior executives to “respond in person and not delegate.” In addition, management “should be perceptive enough” to gauge whether team members are actually expressing their discontent and the reasons for it or are putting on a “deceptive show” to simply appease management.

Just because an employee does not voice complaints does not mean that he or she is satisfied. It may not just be in the team member’s personality to be vocal about his or her frustrations. The employee could also just be scared of confrontations. Worse, the team member may believe there is no point to communicating openly because management cannot or would not redress his or her concerns anyway.

This is why Saundra Pelletier, CEO of WomanCare Global, forged “a very transparent relationship” with her team. Pelletier does not hold anything back — sharing “the good, the bad and the ugly” with her team — and expects her colleagues to do the same. Doing so “allows us to really dig in on the warts, pitfalls, and roadblocks, so we can have an intervention and take corrective action as quickly as possible,” Pelletier said.

Meet with staff face-to-face

Development organizations often have offices in different locations. If two-way communication between management and staff in one office is already challenging, setting up credible and effective feedback mechanisms is much more difficult when colleagues are geographically dispersed.

“A clear calendar of visits to these outlying posts should be a mandatory part of the executives,” Gichuki said. There must also be a clear agenda and means to redress concerns brought up in previous visits.

Face-to-face communication is important, especially in these instances. Executives should not use these visits to just communicate goals and priorities, but also “to hear from local staff, volunteers and the people we help in order to better comprehend their needs and the challenges they encounter in relation to our global mandate and response,” Geleta noted.

Directly engaging with country-based and regional staff on a frequent basis can certainly help senior management understand the challenges their organizations are facing, and determine a proper response. But going to the front line as often as possible can also “close the gap between those who deliver and those who manage, [and] give an executive unparalleled insight into how the organization is working,” Danny Sriskandarajah, CEO and secretary-general of global civil society network Civicus.

Connect staff duties and accomplishments with the organization’s mission

In the private sector, career decisions are often made based on salary and position. But Pelletier said it is different in the nonprofit sector, where the motivating factor is often the desire to create social impact.

WomanCare Global is unique in the sense that it follows a hybrid business model: part nonprofit, part revenue-generating. The challenge for Pelletier is to find “one or two critical motivating factors” for its very distinct teams. Underlying these, however, are three essentials: “connectivity, sense of purpose and trust in the leadership team.”

“If you feel disconnected or you don’t understand the role you are in or the value that you bring, or if you feel like the company is drifting from its intended purpose or that the leadership is focusing on the wrong things,” Pelletier said, “then you begin to question whether or not this is the best fit for you.”

Sriskandarajah noted that losing a “sense of common purpose and community” is certainly a risk as development organizations grow and become more complex. But keeping an eye on what the organization wants to achieve can help keep teams focused and motivated, especially in times of adversity.

Civicus’ CEO finds it useful to take a step back and reflect on how the organization is achieving its purpose via the activities it is implementing. Pelletier, meanwhile, makes sure the right people are given the right roles. It is also important that team members all believe in WomanCare Global’s mission: give women worldwide access to cost-effective and innovative family planning options.

“By and large, demotivation of team members can largely be blamed on poor leadership,” Gichuki stressed, adding that employees need inspiring supervisors who they can learn from, can help develop their skills and can “challenge them to come up with solutions.” One of the major reasons development professionals leave their organizations, Gichuki noted, is because their supervisors are poor coaches and mentors.

Open opportunities for growth

For IFRC’s secretary-general, cultivating a “collective purpose” is not enough to motivate team members; they also need to be given opportunities to be “dynamically involved in” or lead “meaningful projects.”

In addition, team members need to be given the space and opportunity to “take initiative without suffering from bureaucratic excess or perceived incoherence in the decision-making,” Geleta said.

Gichuki agrees, and believes employees will start looking for opportunities elsewhere when they feel they are stuck in a dead-end position. Mentorship and offering training opportunities can help stave off the discontent, especially when there are no positions available for the team member to move up to or when senior management is still uncertain over whether the employee can handle the responsibilities entailed in a promotion.

“Few things can be as demotivating as doing the same job for years with hardly any skills upgrade as it means the employee cannot expect to take on higher responsibilities without any skills development,” Gichuki said.

Institute fair compensation, reward practices

Working in the development sector is often associated with high stress and low pay. But while high salaries are not a primary motivating factor in the industry, development professionals need to know that they are being compensated fairly.

Management should implement and enforce fair practices in hiring, promotions and recognition through a transparent compensation scale and evaluation system.

In determining compensation levels, experience, tasks and responsibilities should be primary considerations. For a team member who already feels overworked and underappreciated, finding out that a colleague with a lighter load is being compensated similarly can fuel discontent.

In addition, unless an expat has extensive experience and can contribute significantly to the organization, there should be no major discrepancies between the salaries of local and foreign staff hired for the same position or job level.

Senior executives should not be stingy in showing their appreciation — which goes beyond compensation and may include public recognition of their achievements — as well. “Indeed, many employees are willing to take on extra work as long as there is appreciation from leadership, even when the extra work is not necessarily compensated,” Gichuki said. “When it is unappreciated and not compensated, the consequence will be justifiable demotivation.”

In fact, Geleta notes that “those who are not treated fairly by their managers are ultimately the more likely to leave.” This includes feeling their managers have unreasonable expectations or are dismissive of the frustrations they have with their jobs.

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About the author

  • Aimee Rae Ocampo

    As former Devex editor for business insight, Aimee created and managed multimedia content and cutting-edge analysis for executives in international development.