Sergej Khakimullin/

Were You Born to Boost Morale?

DHS and the government in general need talented managers to address employee disengagement.

News about low morale at the Homeland Security Department is alarming, given the significant role DHS plays in the safety of the United States. How can we handle emergencies if Federal Emergency Management Agency employees don’t want to come to work? How capable are Transportation Security Administration agents at scanning airport cargo when they’d really rather scan for their next job?

In the Office of Personnel Management's most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, DHS employees’ reported a lack of agreement with the statements “My talents are used well in the workplace” and “I am given a real opportunity to improve my skills in my organization” -- answers the Government Accountability Office on March 22 described to a congressional subcommittee as “impact items.”

The survey responses clearly call for better management.

After conducting millions of surveys and interviews, Gallup has identified the single most important predictor of an employee’s engagement is his or her answer to the question “Does your manager care about your development?” If the responses are strongly positive, then disengagement does not exist.

Asked at the March 22 hearing to offer solutions to address the low morale at DHS and the need for better management, Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service, Catherine Emerson, chief human capital officer at DHS, and others recommended that DHS develop its leaders and improve its communications. These interventions could improve survey responses a bit, but they won’t solve the systemic problems rooted in poor management.

The long-term solution to low morale goes well beyond communication and training. It involves overhauling the hiring and selection of managers. Gallup researchers have discovered that there is actually a silver bullet: Simply name the right manager. Nothing fixes a manager who has little talent for the task at hand.

Government agencies must do what world-class companies have been doing successfully for years: Hire and select for the talents and strengths specific to supervisors, rather than promoting people based exclusively on experience or longevity within the organization.

We all know too well that managers can be technically competent but have no inherent knack for the details of managing, such as hiring, setting expectations, motivating and developing others. This underscores the differences between knowledge and skills, which can be acquired, and talents, which are innate and can be developed into strengths. DHS should evaluate every aspect of its selection processes and incorporate innate talents as a major driver of whether a person is a good fit for management.

And DHS must start from the beginning, by evaluating position descriptions and job postings for the innate talents that a job demands. DHS should identify the talents of its current managers to see where there are mismatches and reorganize the managers and the positions accordingly. From there, the job certification and interview processes should be grounded in the vocabulary of strengths and talents as much as they are in qualifications. This strategy would ensure the long-term viability of DHS management and improve employee engagement better than focusing primarily on leadership development.

The truth is, lousy managers beget miserable employees. So while training may marginally improve engagement, until DHS (and the federal government as a whole) overhauls selection and hiring of managers and supervisors, it will continue to produce hundreds of thousands of disengaged employees.

Jim Clifton is chairman and chief executive officer at Gallup, and Stephen Ander, Gallup senior consultant, is former special adviser to the director of the Secret Service.

(Image via Sergej Khakimullin/