Staff want to feel valued and have work that makes a difference, writes Linda Gerber.

Staff want to feel valued and have work that makes a difference, writes Linda Gerber. KTSDESIGN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

How can senior government leaders best leverage the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey?

COMMENTARY | A lower-than-average employee engagement score may tempt leadership to implement new activities intended to make employees feel happier at work. They should resist this temptation, says one federal executive coach.

The Office of Personnel Management’s Employee Viewpoint Survey has become an important tool for agency leadership to get feedback on their workforce. 

Recognizing the potential of getting regular and extensive information, many agencies have included addressing concerns raised in the EVS as a specific element of Senior Executive performance – which of course trickles down through the leadership ranks. A lower-than-average employee engagement score may tempt leadership to implement new activities intended to make employees feel happier at work. Many great ideas might be floated – prioritizing employee recognition, peer-to-peer coaching, planning fun events, etc. – but when the scores for next year’s EVS are tallied, leadership will likely be surprised that there was no positive bump in their employee satisfaction numbers.

This temptation should be resisted and, instead, replaced with a winning strategy.  Instead of thinking of adding on as the solution, consider reinvesting in your foundation.  This might look like creating one or two (at most) special events coupled with a significant and mindful focus on front-line leadership. Such an approach provides for both measurable events which might carry a short-term boost to employee engagement and a long-term investment at the leadership level closest to employees and having, arguably, the greatest impact on employees’ lived work experience.

And what is that lived experience? Staff want to feel valued and have work that makes a difference. They want to feel seen and appreciated by their supervisor and afforded a fair opportunity to advance. When a mistake is made, they want a manager who works with them to find a solution and provides proper training to avoid that mistake in the future. In the event of conflict, they want their manager to step-in and effectively (and objectively) find a path forward. All of which takes time on the part of the first-line supervisors.

Front-line leaders are asked to accomplish a great deal. They are expected to be good managers, providing excellent and on-time work products. They are expected to manage their budgets down to the penny. They are expected to be managers, mentors and coaches to their staff – addressing short-comings while simultaneously ensuring their staff are being fully utilized with meaningful work. While keeping these balls in the air, many first-line leaders are also doing staff work. In order to meet these expectations while creating a culture in which staff experience is accentuated takes time, and time is a resource in very short supply. 

To ensure that front-line leaders have both the resources and the time to do their job effectively, thereby positively enhancing employee engagement, senior leaders should consider the following five actions:

  1.  Know and clearly communicate expectations throughout the leadership chain of your vision of excellent leadership. Look for ways to re-reinforce your expectations – the best way to do this is to be the model for others to follow.
  2. Develop a forum to engage with front-line leaders on their issues. Regularly engage with that group.  Know what their issues are. Find ways to address their concerns.
  3. Develop a mandatory supervisor training requirement (at regular intervals) addressing the core issues of communication, conflict, diversity as well as any other issues identified in collaboration with the front-line leaders’ group. While agencies might have mandatory training for new supervisors, what efforts does your agency take to ensure that training is refreshed for your front-line leaders?
  4. Find ways to regularly highlight your managers who not only deliver excellent work products but who are excellent leaders. Look for leadership done right – leadership that encapsulates your vision. This could be in the formal chain, or it could be leaders outside that formal chain. 
  5. Make spending time with staff a priority for your leadership team. This might mean having a hard discussion about priorities. If your managers’ plates are filled to the brim and then you add on another priority or responsibility, generally what falls off the plate is time with staff, which means your managers can no longer be present with staff, hear them and see them. If you want your staff to develop trust in and feel valued by their managers, those managers must have time to mindfully engage with their staff. What can you do to help make that happen?

By embracing these five actions, this is what your front-line supervisors will see: I can trust that my leadership chain sees me and values my contribution. I feel I have the support to do my job well and I feel I have the time to engage meaningfully with my staff to help them achieve their goals.  

And what will the staff see? I can trust that my leadership sees me and values my contribution. I have the support to do my job well and I understand and can maximize my impact on the organization.

It is from that solid foundation of trust, support and inclusion that adding on an annual retreat, an office-wide picnic or other such gesture meant to enhance employee engagement will fruitfully take hold. Ask yourself, what am I looking to achieve in my office’s response to our EVS scores? By embracing these five actions, your efforts have the possibility to leverage gains far beyond a company picnic.

Linda Gerber is a longtime federal internal coach, working with clients across the GS-spectrum and in the Senior Executive Service.