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What It Will Take to Improve Morale

Fixing employee engagement starts with managers.

Employee dissatisfaction with the way performance is managed contributes to the federal workforce’s morale problem—and it’s getting worse. That’s apparent in the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and also in a recent Senior Executives Association survey. The SEA report emphasizes the connection between low morale and fair and effective performance management. To quote from the report: “When these systems are perceived as unfair, inconsequential, overly burdensome and devoid of material relevance, they become negatives in the realm of motivating and engaging employees.”

The need to improve performance management is also a thread that runs through the Partnership for Public Service report, "A New Civil Service Framework," where the word “performance” appears 117 times.

Research confirms performance management is important to employees in every organization since it affects their careers. Gallup studies show the day-to-day activities associated with the management of performance are central to employee engagement. Nine of the 12 questions in Gallup’s Q12 survey are related to performance management. These and other studies show that when employees are engaged, they perform at higher levels and are committed to their employer’s success.

Employees want to contribute to their employer’s success, to know they are valued, and to be recognized and rewarded for their contribution. They also want constructive feedback and opportunities to grow and develop their capabilities. They, of course, want to be treated fairly. Those are core issues that emerge regularly in engagement studies.

But the reality of government is reflected in the responses to the 2013 FEVS report. There are a number of questions that in different ways ask whether employees are satisfied with decisions based on the evaluation of their performance. Question by question, the positive responses are below 40 percent. For example, only 32 percent believe promotions are “based on merit.” Only 31 percent believe “differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way.”

In the survey of SESers, over half of respondents thought morale was “low” or “very low.” Across the agencies, there is a high correlation between senior executive’s dissatisfaction with the appraisal process and low morale.

Agencies now have to deal with deep-seated skepticism. Solving the problems will require a multiyear investment. System design is important, but even the best will fail if it’s not used conscientiously by managers. Technology is an important tool but it’s only that. Training for managers is also important—it should be mandatory—but new behaviors will be quickly forgotten if not reinforced.

Realistically the solution starts by recognizing that performance management isn’t an HR problem, it’s a management problem. HR specialists are rarely involved in the day-to-day management of performance and have little, if any, control over how managers use the system. As with any complex organizational change, it needs a champion, and since it affects the entire organization, agency leaders have to make it a priority. In business that’s why executives like GE’s Jack Welch have had prominent roles.

Top leaders need to reinforce the importance of this responsibility with managers. An effective way to do that is to set aside a portion of the funds available for bonuses to reward the most effective managers. Those who prove to be ineffective should be moved to nonsupervisory roles.

It has not been publicized, but performance systems today serve a different purpose than a decade or so ago. In the past, ratings simply confirmed employees performed adequately. That’s the old pass/fail logic.

Now the focus is on improving performance. For that employees need job-specific feedback on their strengths and weaknesses. Coaching in sports is a useful model. Coaches coach throughout each game; players get congratulated for a great play and criticized when warranted. Their performance depends on a different set of skills at each position. As in sports, focusing on job-specific performance issues facilitates manager-employee discussions.

Agencies looking for a better answer should look at how the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency planned and now manages its performance system. The agency relied heavily on employee involvement, developed a rigorous system assessment process, communicated aggressively, and has been persistent in improving the system over time. NGA’s system has had challenges, but at year end the agency identifies problems and addresses them.

That success prompted the Director of National Intelligence to use the NGA system as a model for other intelligence agencies. The agencies were responsible for implementation. But leadership varied across the organizations, acceptance was impeded by the “not invented here” syndrome, and employee concerns in the weaker organizations eventually killed the initiative.

That experience is important. Agencies have distinct missions, cultures, human capital issues and performance problems. Agencies like the Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Attorneys Office have obviously different requirements. Each should be accountable for developing a performance system that meets its needs. Executives at the highest levels need to champion the project. Managers and employees should be involved at each step. They understand performance requirements better than anyone.

The Partnership’s report describes performance management as “a paperwork exercise, an annual necessary evil that has little tangible impact on their working lives.” It’s worse than that, since it contributes to employee dissatisfaction. That has to change.

Howard Risher is an independent compensation and performance management consultant. He was the managing consultant for the studies leading to the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act. He is the author or co-author of five books, including Planning Wage and Salary Programs.

(Image via Angela Waye/Shutterstock.com)

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