How authentic appreciation can help cut through government bureaucracy


By Paul White

Government agencies are extremely concerned about their low levels of employee engagement, and rightfully so. When staff members don’t feel valued, they become discouraged, passive, apathetic and cynical.

This can result from a variety of factors including not feeling respected by customers, poor communication within the agency, a sense of powerlessness to make improvements, and not feeling ‘heard’ by upper level managers and directors.  The issues seem to be the same whether the agency is at the city, county, state or federal level.

Local governments are not immune to these low levels of engagement. The Washington Post reported on the data released by Gallup in July that only 29% of state and local government workers surveyed were engaged in their jobs. Jena McGregor talked with Gallup managing partner Jim Clifton about the survey results and noted that one way to increase engagement is by promoting people into management who are “actually good at managing people”—and not because of seniority or success in past roles. Successful managers are not only trained to move the team forward and meet organizational goals, but they also understand the “people” side; that is, they know how to motivate and encourage team members to reach their full potential.

Government employees in various roles (frontline employees, supervisors, managers, or directors) report that staff members are incredibly frustrated with the bureaucratic maze in which they work.  In fact, for many, “bureaucracy” is a synonym for the government.

Practically speaking, what does this look like?  Here are examples given by government employees:

  • “The number of forms I have to fill out is crazy – and they are always changing. My ‘work’ has essentially become the paperwork necessary to get tasks done.”

  • “Rules and regulations are obviously needed. But there are so many, you can’t even keep track of them all. And they come from all different directions.  It’s a miracle we get anything done at all.”

  • “The most frustrating thing to me is – when a job position opens, the person who has the most experience and most qualified rarely gets the job. So we wind up promoting those who are less competent.”

As we work with more government agencies, we are finding that one very effective way to make government employees’ daily lives better is to teach them how to communicate authentic appreciation to one another in the ways that are meaningful to each individual.

Why does this work?  Because the focus on appreciation is:

  1. Authentic. We don’t want people just “going through the motions” or acting like they appreciate someone when they really don’t.

  2. Personal.  True appreciation is between individuals, not a generic certificate that everyone gets.

  3. Individualized. Not generic, group-blasted emails.  Authentic appreciation is about you – your skills & abilities, what you’ve accomplished.

  4. Not only about work. We are people first. Yes, we accomplish tasks, but we have other valuable qualities not directly related to performance (e.g. a sense of humor).

  5. In the language and actions important to the recipient. Not everyone feels appreciated in the same ways, and appreciation is most impactful when given in the ways valued by the recipient.

Because the demands and challenges working within a government setting are unique, we’ve created a customized version of our online assessment to make sure the actions suggested fit with government regulations (for example, regarding giving gifts) and are relevant to government workplaces.

We acknowledge that there are inherent challenges within many government agencies that make them at risk for becoming unhealthy workplaces, but we also affirm that government employees deserve to be encouraged and shown appreciation for the important services they provide.


Paul White is a a psychologist, author, speaker, and consultant who has improved numerous businesses, schools, government agencies and non-profit organizations over the past 20 years. He can be reached at



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