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

Are You Ready for the Next Organizational Crisis?

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Whether it is retrieving astronauts from space or clarifying a tactless comment that created a firestorm for someone in the communications office, all organizations face challenges that force employees to think and act differently in response.

At a time when many agencies just want to fly under the radar and focus on mission work in anticipation of the next administration, there are a few that can’t seem to avoid critical attention for their handling (or mishandling) of organizational issues. The VA continues to struggle with ridding the agency of underperformers. Homeland Security faces questions about executives’ use of private email. And the National Park Service faces accusations of employing “scum” by one especially vocal Congressman.

As the public gets a glimpse into the leadership’s handling of public crises, one has to wonder what’s going on beneath the surface with the career staff. How does a pounding in the press affect morale and engagement?

We intuitively know that an engaged workforce—one that shows dedication and effort in their work—is crucial to high-performing organizations. In fact, one study  in the Harvard Business Review shows that employee engagement is key to reaching organizational goals, reducing turnover, improving work quality, and improving overall individual employee health.

We also know that high-performing organizations are better able to handle moments of crisis. But what about those organizations at the other end of the spectrum? What are they missing?

The very nature of some organizational challenges makes employee engagement especially important. For example, problems stemming from unethical conduct or incompetence among one or a handful of senior staff can be hugely damaging for organizations already on uncertain ground with their employees. Conversely, those with strong workforce engagement are more likely to view those events as one-offs and not as systemic problems. In moments of crisis, an engaged workforce can be the key to a quick recovery that minimizes the distraction and disruption when big problems arise.

According to one study, 73 percent of full-time workers surveyed encountered ethical lapses in management. Of those, 36 percent say they were distracted by the incident. For some, distraction means an entire day or more of productivity lost. Because of their size, large organizations have more to lose in terms of productivity and engagement when a crisis occurs.

The solution is preventative: Engage employees now to improve performance when times are good and minimize disruption when problems occur.

How? Most traditional approaches focus on leadership action and attempt to isolate employee engagement from other issues. Often, well-meaning organizations start by conducting an employee survey to collect insights into engagement drivers and barriers. Then, senior management convenes to discuss the results and develop an action plan to address the findings. More experienced executives then review progress against the plan at regular intervals and hold leaders accountable for results.  

While this approach may incrementally improve results, there is a better, simpler way: Engage employees on actual problems. Invite them into a participative process to share what they and their teams need to fully unlock discretionary effort. Employees who believe their opinions are valued will have the best ideas to create a better workplace experience that benefits them, their teams, and the overall performance of the business.

While employee engagement is a persistent problem, the solution doesn’t have to be complicated. Engage employees in matters of interest to the organization (and to them) by using their experience and valuing their opinions. No special programs are needed. It’s an investment that will pay off in good times and bad.

Robin Camarote is federal management consultant focused on strategy and communications. See more at her blog robincamarote.com. Bill Fischer has 20 years of experience partnering with CXO leadership teams on business strategy, human capital, and technology initiatives. Click here to download more details on how to increase employee engagement.

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