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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Maintaining Morale

The uncertainty surrounding the government's current budget confrontation has forced federal agencies to make preparations to shut down the bulk of their operations. While the prospect of a shutdown sounds dire, it is an event that rarely lasts long and can be survived. Since 1977 there have been 16 shutdowns, with the longest lasting three weeks.

Of course, shutting down for even a day has consequences that the general public and congressional leaders are eager to avert. But even if a budget compromise is struck, an important workforce challenge remains: How do agencies maintain employee morale and productivity in an environment characterized by constrained resources, likely federal workforce reductions and a multiyear pay freeze?

During difficult fiscal conditions, agencies face an uphill battle to realize the employee engagement required to achieve mission success. To mitigate the negative effects these developments can have on employee productivity and retention, agencies should focus on managing what we at the Corporate Executive Board call the "three Rs"-- roles, recognition and risk.

Roles. Federal managers are becoming less effective at defining employee roles. During times of turmoil, not only does an organization's strategy tend to change, but the resources it possesses to achieve that strategy (both in terms of people and physical assets such as systems) also change, often in a way that reshapes what is expected of employees. Research bears this out -- according to the 2010 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, 20 percent of federal employees do not know what is expected of them at work.

Only by proactively communicating organizational changes to the workforce can an agency's leadership ensure that everyone has clear performance objectives and is "pulling in the same direction." To do this, agencies must ensure that managers focus on setting performance objectives rather than defining roles.

There are several key questions for managers to ask when setting employee performance objectives:

  • Are the goals aligned with the agency's mission?
  • Are the goals practical, achievable and within the employee's control?
  • Does the employee have the skills and resources to achieve the goal?

Recognition. Employee desire for job recognition is increasing. Results of last year's FedView survey indicated that nearly 50 percent of federal employees were not satisfied with the recognition they received, and a majority did not agree that employee awards depend on performance. While ample attention has been given to the federal pay freeze, another critical aspect of promoting outstanding effort and retention, noncash recognition, is significantly underutilized.

According to research conducted by the Corporate Executive Board, consistent use of noncash awards such as certificates of achievement, public recognition and thank-you notes has a larger impact on employee engagement than a small increase in compensation.

The most progressive agencies equip managers to differentiate recognition rather than encouraging them to praise everyone. Examples of high impact noncash awards include:

  • E-mail from leaders recognizing achievement and thanking employees (either directly or publicly).
  • Departmental awards for outstanding achievement.
  • Unique development opportunities for outstanding performers (for example, working on a cross-functional team).

Risk. Managers are becoming risk-averse, and productivity and innovation are suffering. Efficiency and effectiveness are concepts that are fundamental to the debate raging on federal budgets. As with any organization going through a period of significant transition, communication is critical to manage change and develop innovative new approaches that will elevate agency performance. The 2010 FedView results, however, show that the level of cooperation within work groups across government has declined substantially in the past few years. In addition, employees feel less encouraged to find new and better ways of doing their job. This mind-set runs contrary to the secular need for innovation to revolutionize government and more efficiently deliver services to citizens.

Best-in-class agencies encourage innovation and enable employees and leaders to systematically identify the most promising ideas. These organizations orient their employees to ask themselves:

  • Does the idea reduce risk to our organization?
  • Does the idea eliminate redundancy?
  • Does the idea address a previously defined problem?

The three Rs are not newly important mandates for managing the workforce; they are concepts that progressive organizations have long embraced, and that the current fiscal environment has brought into specific focus. Recent history has shown that organizations that actively pursue a culture of innovation driven by employee engagement do more than weather the storm; they blaze the path to calmer waters.

Adam Cole is director of government practice at the Corporate Executive Board, in Arlington, Va.

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