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Nov 2, 2021 2021-11 Business Administration Faculty Research in Education

The Third Lever — Finding new tools to motivate employees in the public sector

When it comes to motivating employees in the private sector, most companies rely on two levers — the carrot and the stick. Those who excel are promised financial incentives, while those who fail to meet the standard are threatened with the door. But in the public sector, it’s a very different world, says Gies teaching assistant professor Ashish Khandelwal.

“Public sector organizations don’t usually have the financial reserves to offer big incentives, and they can’t usually fire employees as easily,” said Khandelwal. So, if the stick is broken and the carrot is rotting along the roadside, how do you move the donkey forward? According to Khandelwal, you may just need to remind the donkey of his or her purpose.

After earning an MBA at the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ashish enrolled in the doctoral program at the Indian School of Business. During his PhD at ISB, he started working on research to assess the causal impact of marketing interventions. One of the research projects explores the use of identity as a motivation tool.

“There’s a lot of work in psychology, especially in the psychology of motivation and goal pursuit, that has shown that when you prime people's identity, then certain behaviors tend to become much easier if these behaviors are in congruence with that identity," he said.

The challenges concomitant with the identity-congruent behavior provide meaning and motivate people to engage in that behavior. On the other hand, the concomitant challenges with the identity-incongruent-behavior are perceived meaningless and thus demotivating.

For example, when soldiers are told to “be all they can be,” the pain of the boot camp becomes meaningful and purposeful. When the identity of a soldier is primed, the pain associated with being a soldier becomes a meaningful pursuit instead of something that needs to be avoided. It calls upon their innate drive and capabilities that inspired them to enlist. With five simple words, they’re reminded that they’re soldiers — and soldiers power through.

To test this idea in the workplace, Khandelwal conducted a large-scale field experiment involving more than 3,000 public sector employees in one of the largest states in India. Based on the qualitative research with many employees, Khandelwal and his team of researchers identified that these employees psychologically identify themselves as either contributing to their nation or to the organization. “I realized that these government employees have these identities that are sort of dormant. They know they’re working for the country (nation) and/or the organization (institution), but that’s not the first thought that comes to mind when they’re thinking about their job.”

Through a series of narratives, Khandelwal reminded them, priming one group of employees to focus on their national identity and another to focus on their institutional identity. Both groups showed improvements, but by the third quarter, those primed to think of their national identity showed the strongest results, proving that identity could indeed be a motivational force.

Large-scale experiments like this appeal to Khandelwal’s interest in psychology and analytics. He honed the latter at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, where he earned his PhD in marketing. During his PhD, he also earned an advanced certificate in machine learning and artificial intelligence from Indian Institute of Information Technology-Hyderabad. “I had this interest in psychology, but I figured analytics is where the world is going.”

As one of the world’s top business schools, Gies has also recognized the increasing role of data in business, creating an entire organization dedicated to facilitating its use. The Data Science Research Service drives innovation at Gies by helping students, faculty, and staff with their data science, machine learning, and data acquisition needs.

During his time at Gies, Khandelwal has done his part to further the use of data in the business world, teaching analytics courses to both undergrads and MBA students. As someone who once worked in the private sector, however, he especially enjoys the latter.

“The greatest part has been giving managers the tools they need to make better decisions,” said Khandelwal. “I was a business manager myself, and I know how oblivious I was. There was all this data around me, and I was just not using it. Having learned about machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data analytics has just opened my eyes to so many opportunities.” And now he hopes to do the same for those just entering the business world, helping them turn big data into the smart solutions that the business world demands.