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If Employees Aren't Engaged, Leaders Need to Take a Hard Look at Their Own Actions

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The 2016 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey is now history. I am working with a group associated with a federal organization that recently reported the results of a similar survey conducted by Gallup.  There are differences in the surveys, but both focus on employee engagement. 

A key difference (and I have no ties to Gallup) is that using the Gallup survey makes it possible to compare responses and identify weaknesses relative to practices in thousands of other organizations.  The organization in question learned its workforce is badly demoralized. When compared with other survey organizations, it’s one of the worst workplaces in the United States.

Another difference is the way the survey results are reported. Gallup categorizes respondents as “engaged”, “not engaged” or “actively disengaged.” The current breakdown nationally is roughly 33 percent engaged, 50 percent not engaged, and 16 percent actively disengaged.  The latter group are problem employees. They add to employer costs—higher absenteeism, higher grievances, lower productivity, lower customer satisfaction, higher waste, etc. Many are disruptive. They also experience higher levels of stress and related health problems.

Organizations with high levels of engaged employees perform significantly better. Their productivity holds down costs. Their employees also benefit from high levels of job satisfaction.

The newly revised FEVS questionnaire uses questions similar to Gallup’s but the results have been reported differently. The Engagement Index is an aggregate measure, not an individual measure. The Office of Personnel Management could—and should—generate results similar to Gallup’s. OPM focuses in its public reports on raising engagement scores. It would be advantageous to identify work units where serious morale problems exist. Hopefully OPM is also using the FEVS data to identify the best people managers. 

The Overlooked Issue: Leader Accountability

The articles and reports on engagement focus on managers and their effectiveness as supervisors.  The role of managers is a thread that runs through both this year’s FEVS survey and the Gallup survey.

Research from a number of engagement studies shows managers are front and center. Where there is a high performing team, there is inevitably a great manager. Conversely, the research also shows that where there is high turnover, a manager is a contributing factor. An often quoted statement attributed to Gallup is, “People leave managers not companies.”

But what has not been highlighted is that engagement is important at every level. It’s as important to the performance of senior executives as it is to the lowest level workers. That’s probably not too surprising.

The unreported factor is that it’s very unlikely that a manager who is not engaged or actively disengaged is going to be a good manager. In the 2015 FEVS results the engagement of managers/supervisors was only moderately higher than nonsupervisory staff.

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Significantly Gallup’s analyses confirm that patterns of engagement cascade from level to level. If senior executives are not engaged, there is little chance the next level of management will be highly engaged. The pattern would likely carry over to succeeding levels.

That no doubt makes complete sense for anyone who has had the misfortune of working for a manager who is angry about his career status.

The bottom line is that agency leaders along with senior executives should be accountable for and take an active role in creating a work environment that contributes to high levels of engagement.  Where employees are apathetic, disconnected, uncooperative—that is, disengaged—it should be seen as a senior management failure. Executives should be held accountable for employee engagement.

What Leaders Do to Inspire Engagement

A column in Forbes carries the title, “Employee Engagement Is A Leadership Commitment.”  It’s become that important in the private sector.

This is not an issue that can be delegated to the human resources office or to consultants. Neither has much influence on how managers at any level do their jobs. They can write the script but the message has to come from an organization’s leaders.

With the caveat that every organization is different, students of leadership have highlighted several things that leaders emphasize in organizations with high levels of engagement. 

One that should be automatic in government is making certain employees understand and agree with the purpose of the organization. It’s consistent with the theory referred to as Public Service Motivation. People want to believe their job and work efforts are contributing to achieving goals that are important. 

Toward that end, engagement is strengthened when leaders keep employees informed of results and progress in achieving goals. Companies and business leaders routinely tell the world how great they are. They publicize their successes. People want to work for successful organizations. Agencies could do a far better job of keeping employees aware of progress.

The corollary is that leaders articulate and frequently repeat goals and expectations. From advertising we know people need to hear things a number of times before they “buy” it. That has to cascade down to and become routine for managers. It’s the idea behind goal setting and the use of milestones. The shared understanding of success contributes to collaboration and teamwork.

When a group or individual achieves success, at the organization level as well as the work unit level, their progress needs to be recognized and on some basis celebrated. Individuals whose contributions stand out need to be recognized. Repeated FEVS surveys show agencies fail badly in recognizing contributors. Every manager should have a copy of the book, 1001 Ways to Energize Employees (Workman Publishing Company, 1997).

Effective leaders also institutionalize guiding principles and values. That’s very evident in the world’s best companies, hospitals and universities. It is reinforced in training, in succession planning and in the people who are promoted. Internal communications reinforce values—equality, respect, collaboration, learning, discipline, etc. Employees know their employer stands for something.

Possibly the most important but often ignored attribute of great leaders is their ability to build and sustain employee trust. It’s been argued that trust is a “critical driver of employee engagement.”  Trust rides on leader integrity and open communications. Leaders have to follow through on promises. And they need to be honest, especially when problems arise and organizations need to adapt and respond.

Leaders, of course, need the support of effective managers and a productive workforce. A number of management practices are important to organization performance. But as the ongoing disappointment with management systems shows clearly, if employees are not engaged and committed, success is far less likely. Leaders are the keys to getting employees on board and improving performance.

Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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