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

Engaging Employees in Tough Times


During the past several years, millions of Americans working for private sector companies and state and local governments lost their jobs, while the federal government kept hiring. But the landscape has changed. Federal positions, traditionally regarded as the most stable, are now at risk under President Obama’s plan to trim $24 billion from the federal budget in 2013.

The private sector is actually showing signs of economic recovery, with the Dow crossing the 13,000 mark this year for the first time since May 2008. Now, as government struggles to retain its value proposition, it risks losing critical talent resources at the hand of more attractive, viable and profitable private sector employment opportunities. As Ted Kaufman, former Delaware Senator, recently said, “At some point, instead of 10,000 [government employees] retiring in one year, you’ll have 40,000 retiring in six months . . . if this economy comes back . . . and people have options.” Agencies face a difficult challenge: retaining top talent in a time of uncertainty and fluctuation while also battling fierce competition from the private sector.

When budgets get tight, agencies must get creative about how to attract and keep the best and brightest professionals. Fortunately, most federal employees are more motivated by the opportunity to contribute to the greater good than by financial rewards, so engagement is an especially important factor in attracting and retaining these individuals. Engaged employees are more likely to persevere in times of difficulty, produce more and higher quality work, stay in their jobs longer, and be more satisfied with their work and organizations.

According to the Corporate Leadership Council at the Corporate Executive Board, an industry research firm, emotional engagement is four times more powerful than tangible rewards when it comes to inspiring positive attitudes and high performance. In a survey of more than 50,000 employees at 59 global corporations, the council found that increasing engagement leads boosts performance up to 20 percent and reduces the likelihood they will leave by 87 percent.

So what produces engagement? It essentially stems from three factors: a sense of purpose, control over the work environment and the ability to do what one does best. Leaders play a critical role in creating a climate that makes engagement possible. Organizations must provide training and hold leaders accountable for demonstrating 10 key behaviors that drive employee engagement.

Paint the big picture. Tell people how the organization works in plain language that everyone can understand.

Connect the dots. Make sure people understand why their work is important to achieving the mission. If this connection isn’t clear, then restate what employees are being asked to do.

Manage the outcome, not the process. Set clear expectations for what success looks like, but allow people the freedom to determine how to achieve those goals.

Don’t be a chicken. Challenge the status quo and take smart risks that will advance the organization’s goals; encourage and reward others to do the same.

Find the sweet spots. Learn what people are good at and help them structure their work to play to their strengths.

Push people outside their comfort zones. Give them stretch assignments that enhance current skills and further develop their competence.

Critique with compassion. Deliver direct and candid feedback in the spirit of caring and genuine desire to help people succeed.

Treat staff like customers. Pay attention to employees; get to know them, find out what’s important to them, show appreciation and fulfill their needs.

Drive healthy interaction. Demand respect and tolerance for others; broker issues but make people responsible for working things out with one another; reward collaboration.

Model engagement. Attack your own work with enthusiasm; allow for and contribute to fun in the workplace.

Agencies need their best talent to do more with less and accept more uncertainty, and an explicit focus on employee engagement is more important than ever. Organizations that proactively develop leaders who foster this work culture will be able to fuel their talent engines to withstand the threats of a challenging economic environment and build the bench strength needed to meet and exceed mission demands.

Elaine D. Pulakos is president of the management consulting firm PDRI. Rose Mueller-Hanson is director of the firm’s Leadership and Organizational Consulting Group.

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