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It’s Time to Focus on Empowerment and Recognition


Jay Williams, the new assistant secretary at the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration, wants to improve the poor morale of the agency’s workforce. In last year's “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings the agency was all but dead last among 300 agency subcomponents. Of the 14 job issues assessed in the Best Places analyses, EDA ranked either 298th or 299th in 13 of the categories.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Williams said he plans “to create a situation where people feel empowered and appreciated.” The agency’s employees want “better communication, an engaged leadership, and they want to feel their work is appreciated and connected to the larger mission,” he said.

It sounds like Williams is committed to building a solidly engaged workforce. Unfortunately there is no proven strategy for doing that because “engagement” is a human resources construct that does not have a clear definition. Plus, this is an always-difficult organizational change.

A working group of the federal Chief Human Capital Officers Council defines “engagement” as “an employee’s passion and commitment to their work and organization.” Engaged workers stand out. They care about their work and the success of their group and organization. They put in discretionary effort even when their supervisor is not around. They may go home exhausted, but they are anxious to return the next day. Study after study has shown engaged workers perform at high levels—and the positive work-related feelings carry over to the balance of their lives.

Engagement and satisfaction are not the same. Employee satisfaction is certainly a good thing, but it’s a lower bar. Satisfied is not the same as satisfaction. Employees may be satisfied with their salary, for example, but it’s not a source of satisfaction. A satisfied employee might show up on time, put in her time, but go through the motions. It’s possible to be satisfied with pay and benefits and still be a poor performer.

Every researcher, it seems, focuses on slightly different issues. Gallup has probably done the most extensive studies of engagement. The company’s research emphasizes the importance of managers and supervisors. A thread that runs through the research is the importance of communication with managers. The data confirm employees want to know what’s expected, what they can expect, that they are working on something important and related to their employer’s mission, and their work effort is valued.

Gallup’s research, along with the analyses to support the Best Places to Work rankings, reinforces the importance of the issues Williams mentioned—empowerment and appreciation. In the Best Places analyses, the two lowest scoring categories are “Effective Leadership: Empowerment,” with an overall government score of 43.8 out of 100, and “Performance-Based Rewards and Advancement,” at 41.2. Even “Pay,” despite salary freezes, is significantly higher at 50.3.

The Economic Development Administration’s scores were 25.9 for empowerment and 26.2 for performance-based rewards (with the agency ranking 298 and 299, respectively, out of 300 in those categories). That means nearly three out of four employees see these as problem areas. Williams is correct to focus on these issues.

EDA is by no means the only agency experiencing these problems. Roughly 200 of the 300 subcomponent agencies scored 50 or lower on empowerment. For performance-based rewards and advancement, almost 250 scored below 50. NASA units are high on both lists.

One agency missing from the lists, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, was recently forced to abandon its system for managing and evaluating employee performance after only three years. The agency is moving to a pass-fail policy. That practice proved to be unpopular and was discarded years ago. With pass-fail, the focus is on minimal acceptable performance and ignores employee recognition. It will be interesting to see employee reaction to the new policy a few years from now.

CFPB should have—and could have—avoided the claims of bias and prejudice. That should have been an announced priority early in the planning and repeated in manager training. The use of calibration committees, a practice increasingly important in the private sector, would have minimized the problems. The agency should also have assessed and fine-tuned the system annually, based on feedback from managers and employees.

Interestingly, two months later the Defense Department announced its plans to move in the opposite direction and place renewed emphasis on ratings. The intent is “to better connect performance expectations to departmentwide goals and to boost communication between employees and the supervisors rating them,” the announcement said. The plan is to also link bonuses to performance.

The 2010 National Defense Authorization Act required Defense to create a “fair, credible and transparent system for linking employee bonuses and other performance-based actions to performance appraisals of employees.” The law also says the new system should create “meaningful distinctions in ‘performance’ used as the basis for personnel decisions, promote a ‘high performance culture,’ and establish retention incentives for top performers.”

The low governmentwide scores are troubling on two levels. First, on the front line, both categories reflect ineffective supervisory practices. Empowerment is not controlled by a system or by regulations; it’s a supervisory style and culture problem. Managers can decide to empower employees and delegate decision-making authority. In the same way, the responsibility for reward and recognition decisions rests squarely on managers and supervisors. No policy or system prevents them from recognizing and showing appreciation for good performance.

Across every organization, there are good managers and bad. The problem for leaders like Williams is identifying and promoting the best. Those who are ineffective should be moved back to technical roles. Focus groups and 360 degree surveys would be useful.

At the organization level, well-designed performance systems can facilitate performance planning, support results tracking, promote feedback and coaching, and identify the best performers. DoD’s goals are solidly consistent with best-practice thinking.

Performance systems, however, are only tools for managers. Leadership is essential to making effective management a priority. And Williams has the management experience to back his plan to improve morale.

Howard Risher managed compensation consulting practices for two national firms and has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D. from the Wharton School.

(Image via Brian A Jackson/

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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