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The Five Factors That Drive Employee Satisfaction

Federal data show that employee engagement lags far behind agency goals.

In late April, government workers once again provided valuable insights into how they feel about their jobs, supervisors and senior leadership through the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. The Office of Personnel Management will provide results on a rolling basis starting in August. 

OPM considers the survey a critical tool in assessing engagement in the workforce through the “consistent, reliable and actionable information it provides the federal government, each agency, and lower level offices within each organization,” according to Beth Cobert, OPM’s acting director, in a March memo announcing the survey.

Given the survey’s mixed results, OPM’s commitment is admirable. Last year, overall employee engagement rose a mere 1 percentage point, to 64 percent. Any increase in this year’s engagement score will need to triple that pace to reach the stated goal of 67 percent. That would be a tall order, especially when an agency like the Department of Homeland Security has seen engagement decline from 60 percent in 2011 to 53 percent last year.

To arrive at more definitive conclusions about this year’s findings, OPM significantly reduced the number of questions with an emphasis on “stronger, relevant and unambiguous questions.” Questions included: “How satisfied are you with your involvement in decisions that affect your work?” “How satisfied are you with the information you receive from management on what's going on in your organization?” “How satisfied are you with the recognition you receive for doing a good job?”

Survey participants also weighed in on whether their units have the appropriate skills to accomplish goals; whether the workload is reasonable; and whether there are adequate opportunities for career growth and professional development.

While there were fewer questions, they covered much ground that speaks to the essentials of job satisfaction. In a recent article, for example, Deloitte principal and founder Josh Bersin presented the five drivers of what he calls “the simply irresistible organization.” Here they are, along with my take on how they translate to the federal workplace:

Meaningful work. To an individual, the government can look intimidatingly large, leading to doubts about one’s ability to make a difference. That’s why managers must break down units into smaller teams, and empower those teams to autonomously pursue agency objectives in an impactful and measurable way. Managers should also effectively communicate to each individual about how day-to-day tasks directly contribute to the ultimate mission.

Hands-on management. This is not the same as micromanagement. Micromanagers, after all, never welcome the autonomy required to ensure ideal engagement. The hands-on manager combines clear goals with the right level of coaching (close enough to give useful direction, yet distant enough to avoid accusations of looking over the shoulders of employees).

Positive work. Good bosses don’t wait until the annual review to acknowledge the accomplishments of their teams. Instead, agencies should cultivate a culture of recognition, praising daily efforts and longer-term initiatives with regular awards/rewards and informal, impromptu praise. Never underestimate the power of the handwritten note.

Growth opportunity. Professionals these days, including highly sought Millennials, don’t want to get “stuck in neutral.” Virtually everyone yearns for the chance to ascend to a loftier standing with respect to impact, influence and visibility. With the constant promotion and availability of training and development programs, workers will see that their agency has a stake in their future. These should address both the hard skills specific to given positions, as well as the soft skills of communication and leadership development.

Trust in leadership. Great leadership is often defined by intangible qualities. But there are common characteristics, including leading by example in serving the agency’s mission; implementing methods and acquiring resources to make it easier for staffers to do their jobs; conveying genuine transparency about organizational direction and challenges; and inspiring people to do their best every day. Every component here proves essential. And, when an agency establishes them as a standard of best practice among managers, the payoff is greater than the sum of their parts.

The five drivers are all about the human element. But there is a technical side as well, particularly when we deploy talent management analytics to maximize the actionable value of data. Through analytics, you can determine which units have the most and least engaged teams. You can assess the “just right” amount of manager-worker interaction to come up with a winning balance. You can identify how often supervisors provide feedback to their direct reports, and whether the guidance results in improved performance. You can find out if employees like what they do.

The upshot: The FEVS is a terrific tool. But it’s just a start. By adopting policies that embrace people and tech-enabled practices, managers will see soaring engagement scores and thus boost productivity, quality of work and retention. When this happens, everybody wins: agencies, employees and taxpayers.

Liam Ackland is the U.S. president of Acendre, a talent management company.