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Employee Engagement—Cutting Through the Babble

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

By Bob Lavigna
March 12, 2019

In a recent article on employee engagement, the writer described how he had asked several attendees at an HR conference to describe what employee engagement means.

According to the author, each person came up with a different description. The author’s conclusion? If we can’t agree on a definition, how can we, “Fix the employee engagement problem?” Described this way, it does sound kind of hopeless.

But I don’t think it’s hopeless–or even that complicated.

Sure, because of the strong interest in employee engagement, there are different definitions of what it means. There are also a range of approaches to improving engagement, and even different software solutions. If you have a free week sometime, google, “Employee engagement,” and work your way through the millions of hits you’ll generate. Or you can take your chances with the Wikipedia page on engagement.

My organization, the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, exists to help public-sector organizations measure and improve engagement, and therefore improve performance. Our unique niche, however, is that we are an independent government agency that focuses exclusively on the public sector.

And to us, measuring and improving engagement is not rocket science or brain surgery.

Demystifying engagement starts with defining it. We use the definition in the United States Merit Systems Protection Board 2008 report, “The Power of Federal Employee Engagement.” We think this definition, paraphrased below, applies to all organizations, particularly in the public sector. 

Employee engagement is a heightened connection to work, the organization, the mission or coworkers. Engaged employees find personal meaning and pride in their work. They believe their organizations value them. In return, engaged employees are more likely to go above minimum job requirements and expend discretionary effort to deliver performance and support their colleagues and the organization.

But how do we know if our employees are providing this discretionary effort? To answer this, we need to measure engagement, just like we need to measure anything we manage. The most effective way to measure engagement is through an engagement survey. A survey enables the organization to find out directly from employees how they feel about the organization, its mission, leaders, resources, culture, etc. The survey results can also reveal what influences or drives employees’ level of engagement.

Many consulting firms have valid and reliable engagement surveys, which often include similar questions. After all, there are only so many ways to ask employees how they feel about their employer.

When I speak about the need to measure and improve engagement, I argue that the most important decision isn‘t necessarily what survey to use. We like our Institute’s survey because it was designed specifically for the public sector. But there are many valid surveys.

The key decision is to measure engagement empirically. That is, don’t guess or rely on anecdotes—For instance, “Everyone seems happy.” And then, after surveying, take action to improve engagement, focusing on the key drivers of engagement.

It’s not any more complicated than that.

But just because it’s not complicated doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Measuring and improving engagement takes courage and commitment; courage to ask employees for feedback without knowing what they may say. There is an axiom that when you ask for feedback, the only two responses when you receive it are, “Thank you” or “I don’t understand.” This applies to engagement survey results.

For instance, I recently had a difficult conversation with a director of a government department. I reported the results of the employee engagement survey we conducted, including what we found to be the key drivers of engagement for that department.

His reaction? Our results couldn’t possibly be right because our statistical analysis of the drivers conflicted with the steps the agency was already taking to improve engagement. In other words, the results differed from the steps this leader guessed would improve engagement. It took courage for this department to accept the survey data, admit that it had to recalibrate, and then change direction based on the survey results.

It also takes courage to be transparent with the survey results, including sharing them with employees.

And it takes commitment to follow through and act on the results, and then re-survey to see if the needle of engagement is moving in the right direction.

So, cutting through all the babble—it’s about measuring engagement, sharing the results, acting on them, re-measuring, acting on the results again, and so on.

A virtuous cycle that, if done right, will improve engagement and therefore organizational performance. That’s what decades of research, including in government, have revealed.

Simple to describe—maybe. Easy to do—not so simple.

But worthwhile.


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 VP-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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