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Overcoming Barriers to Improving Employee Engagement

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Lavigna
September 2, 2016

In my column last month, I outlined several reasons why I believe the level of employee engagement in most organizations, including in government, is low. As I emphasized, decades of research on engagement has shown that improving engagement delivers results that matter to organizations in both the public and private sectors. These results include financial returns, productivity, innovation, achievement of strategic goals, customer satisfaction and employee retention.

Despite this research, the level of engagement in the U.S government is low. Surveys show that the proportion of engaged public sector employees is as low as 29 percent.

In my August column, I identified eight reasons why engagement is low. There are probably more, but these are the barriers I’ve encountered in my work and research, including for my book Engaging Government Employees. Let’s recap:

  1. We still don’t have a common understanding of employee engagement.
  2. Leaders don’t see the connection between engagement and performance.
  3. Organizations don’t know what their current level of engagement.
  4. Managers may understand and want to improve engagement, but don’t know how.
  5. Engagement is viewed as a human resource project.
  6. When organizations conduct engagement surveys, they don’t act on the results.
  7. Surveys aren’t conducted regularly.
  8. Improving engagement is seen as management’s job, not a shared responsibility with employees. 

This month, I offer some strategies to overcome the first four barriers.

woman-1353803_640Reaching a common understanding of engagement.

This is largely a communications challenge. Agencies that are committed to improving engagement need to communicate exactly what it is they are trying to improve. What does engagement mean and look like? Are they trying to ensure their employees are satisfied or happy?

Sure, we want our employees to be satisfied with their jobs (e.g., compensation, benefits, workload) and the organization. And we want them to be happy, at least most of the time. But we want to go to the next level and enable our employees to have both an intellectual and emotional commitment to the organization – the willingness to devote their discretionary effort to help the organization succeed.

A starting point is to clarify what engagement xis – and how it will be measured. I once heard that, in order to make a message stick, it must be communicated seven times. A senior official in a federal government agency that achieved a world-class level of engagement put like this: “We talk about it (engagement) all the time.”

Connecting the dots between engagement and performance.

Organizations shouldn’t strive to improve engagement for its own sake – they do it because high engagement equals high performance. But organizations that want to build and sustain engagement need to link it to business results. This means having measures for both engagement and organization goals. One example I particularly like is the experience of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), which rose from being ranked #167 in “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” to being ranked #1. At the same time, PTO dramatically reduced the backlog of patent applications, a key performance measure.

Assessing the current level of engagement.

Organizations can’t know if they’re improving unless they have a baseline. This applies to engagement too. The most common approach to develop this baseline is through an employee engagement survey. Sure, there are other ways to try to measure engagement like retention, attendance and even individual performance. But these are indirect measures. Survey results can directly measure engagement.

And there is growing momentum to supplement annual or biennial surveys with more frequent “pulse” surveys to collect more, and more frequent, real-time data.

Figuring out how to improve engagement.

I have a book titled 180 Ways to Improve Engagement. It’s a good book and I’m sure there are even more than 180 ways. However, figuring out what will work in your jurisdiction or agency is another story. Rather than pick and choose from among an almost infinite number of possible ways to improve engagement, actions should be data-based. That is, based on what employees say the issues are.

Next month, I will suggest ways to address the final four barriers I’ve identified.


Author: Bob Lavigna is director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a unit of CPS HR Consulting, an independent government agency. Previously, he was assistant vice chancellor and director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin and vice president of research at the Partnership for Public Service. Email: [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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