Keeping Employees Engaged During Periods of Uncertainty

It’s not just about making workers happy or providing them with incentives.

Federal employee engagement on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey shows signs of recovery since the 2013 sequestration, but the current external climate may make further improvements more challenging. Federal employees face several sources of uncertainty and change, including the recent hiring freeze, proposals to cut benefits and employment protections, and changes to mission and priorities under the Trump administration.

Employee engagement in these conditions is not just about making workers happy or providing them with incentives. Multiple theories and decades of research in psychology and other behavioral sciences have provided insight into what motivates people; from this work we can identify a core set of psychological needs that drive people. Employees aim to meet their core needs across different life domains—work, home, hobbies, and education. Employees are already motivated; the challenge for government leaders is to harness that motivation and direct it toward organizational goals.

These core needs include:

  • Uncertainty Management. Research indicates that people strive to make sense of and predict events in their environments. Simply knowing what to expect is reassuring. Even under very negative and stressful circumstances, people can often cope and adapt if they know what to expect.
  • Purpose and Meaning. People strive to make sense of their world and feel that their actions are worthwhile. Opportunities to express one’s values, contribute to a greater shared purpose, or enhance the wellbeing of others are ways to meet the need for purpose.
  • Autonomy. People inherently enjoy having choice. Self-directed behavior provides the sense that individuals are the causal agents in their own actions, not dependent solely on external constraints.
  • Relationships. People need connection with others. This need is fulfilled by sustained relationships that provide a sense of warmth, acceptance, and consideration, not by superficial contact.
  • Mastery. People have an intrinsic need to feel competent and capable. To meet this need, individuals pursue activities that are challenging and provide opportunities for success.

Needs at Work

Based on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results, the Government Accountability Office has identified a set of drivers of employee engagement in the federal workforce. These drivers center primarily on three of the needs identified above: autonomy (measured as satisfaction with involvement in decisions), relationships (measured as satisfaction with support for work-life balance and employees of different backgrounds), and mastery (measured as satisfaction with feedback and opportunities for development).

Agencies should maintain these drivers, but should also consider focusing on core needs that may be affected by the prospect of change. Those core needs include uncertainty management and purpose, as well as autonomy. Below are some examples of practices to better meet these needs in federal employees.

Communicating Purpose. According to the GAO analysis, one driver of federal employee engagement is communication from management. In times of change, effective communication from management can safeguard employee engagement when it both reduces uncertainty and provides a sense of shared purpose. To enhance a sense of shared purpose, leaders should communicate how employees’ roles fit into the larger organizational vision and how employees’ contributions are making progress toward that vision.   

Non-Monetary Recognition. Another means of reinforcing a sense of purpose is through recognition. Unfortunately, forms of recognition with extrinsic value, such as a bonus or the additional status associated with a promotion, can undermine employees’ intrinsic motivation for the work. When done right, recognition shows that the work was appreciated and impactful. This can be accomplished by recognizing direct contributions to the organization’s overall mission, as well as the smaller contributions that make day-to-day operations go smoothly.

Employee Voice. When organizations undergo change, employees sometimes feel a loss of autonomy. In these circumstances, it becomes even more important to give employees a voice in decision making. Ideally, employees will have input to substantive decisions about the work itself, such as whom they work with and how they accomplish their tasks. But other channels for employee voice and autonomy are also helpful, such as employee-led committees on social activities.

Fairness and Accountability. Fairness in personnel practices is generally accepted as a critical goal, both for legal compliance and to enact organizational values, but also helps employees manage uncertainty, especially under circumstances that are beyond agency leaders’ control. Applying consistent standards for promotion and holding employees and managers accountable for performance creates predictability. This, in turn, allows employees to direct energy toward their work that may otherwise be spent trying to figure out the hidden rules for getting ahead.

Uncertainty and change can be unsettling to employees, but leaders can mitigate the negative impact through actively addressing their employees’ core needs. Leaders should assess how well their organization already employs the above practices and identify actions for improvement. The more that agencies can provide employees with opportunities to meet core needs at work, the more engaged employees will be, even in dynamic times.

Allison Abbe is a Research Staff Member at the Institute for Defense Analyses. She holds a PhD in Social and Personality Psychology and has twelve years of government experience in the defense and intelligence communities, conducting personnel research and managing human capital programs.