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Employee Engagement: It’s About Leadership

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

By Robert Lavigna
November 4, 2016

Several weeks ago, I was listening to the NPR program “Marketplace” (billed on its website as the leading business news program in the nation). The host, Kai Ryssdal, often concludes the program with a segment called “In the Corner Office,” during which he interviews a CEO from a large corporation. At the end of each interview, Ryssdal asks the CEO to describe her/his job in five words.

On this segment, the host was interviewing Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastain. When Ryssdal asked Bastain for a five-word description of his job, Bastain replied, without hesitation, “Taking care of our people.” Ryssdal was clearly surprised that Bastain answered so quickly and succinctly.

Ryssdal also repeatedly pressed the CEO on whether his goal is to make Delta the world’s largest airline. Each time, Bastain simply answered, “We want to be the best.”

airplane-145889_640I was reminded of this interview recently when I flew on Delta from my home in Madison, Wisconsin to Houston, Texas. I was on my way to speak about employee engagement at an event. As I walked onto the plane, I noticed four placards on the fuselage prominently and proudly proclaiming that Delta has been designated as a great place to work by no less than four separate organizations that do this kind of rating. Pretty impressive.

As it turns out after we took off that day, our flight had mechanical difficulties and we had to return to the airport to board another plane. This caused about a two-hour delay. As we milled around the airport waiting for Delta to roll out another airplane, many of the passengers (including me) were grumpy about the delay.

When we took off again, I paid my $4.95 to go online and take care of some emails. The first message I saw was an apology from Delta for the delay, along with 12,500 frequent flyer miles deposited into my account. Despite my frustration, I was impressed and gave Delta a good customer rating when the airline contacted me the next day.

Now, I know most of us have horror stories about air travel, including on Delta flights. Definitely not a picnic these days. So why am I going on about Delta?

It’s because I think there is an employee engagement lesson here, starting with the CEO’s “taking care of our people” description of his job. I believe this attitude – top leadership’s commitment to, and focus on, its people – drives Delta’s best places to work awards and the customer service that deftly turned my negative experience into a positive one.

You may be wondering why I’m waxing so enthusiastically about a private sector company when this is a column about the public sector.

Well, I’m not one to automatically say that anything the private sector does is tougher and better than what we do in government. In fact, just the opposite. I’ve argued that managing in government is different, and often more difficult, than managing in the private sector. As I explain in my book Engaging Government Employees, there are many reasons for this. These include the extreme public visibility of what we do in government, elected leaders who come and go (and their policies), difficult-to-measure goals and outcomes, multiple stakeholders with often conflicting views and demands, and the limited ability to financially reward top performers.

However, the lesson from Delta is that when leaders focus on employee engagement, good things happen. This is true not just in the private sector but also in government. Perhaps it is even more true in government.

For example, the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service has published its “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings since 2003. Each time, “leadership” has been the No. 1 driver of agency scores. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that this will once again be the case when the Partnership issues the 2016 rankings in December.

Time after time, when senior leaders make the commitment to measure and then do what it takes to improve engagement, the needle of engagement moves in the right direction. And three decades of research have shown that high levels of engagement translate into superior performance, including in government.

In other words, it’s about leadership.


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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One Response to Employee Engagement: It’s About Leadership

  1. Larry Keeton Reply

    November 10, 2016 at 8:32 pm

    As a practitioner in a local government agency, and retired military, I knew about ensuring those who worked for you clearly understood their mission, were treated with respect, resourced appropriately, and held accountable. I never knew the term “engagement” until one of our managers suggested we implement it. We did, and we were quite pleasantly surprised at the positive results. It also highlighted where we needed to focus in the next year. We did, and again the results were positive. Engaging employees is critical.

    This progress made me wonder how the private sector faired. Reading Gallup’s annual surveys of the private sector I was amazed to learn that only 35% of managers were engaged, and roughly the same percentage of employees. Which lead to me examine the government.

    Unfortunately, most government agencies at state or local levels do not conduct engagement surveys. The Feds do, which I read with interest, as the Feds appear to have a more engaged workforce than their private sector counterparts, yet, the Feds face the most hostility and criticism.

    This leads me to ask the following question. While the Fed survey the workforce as a whole, do they survey just their management and leadership positions to see if they are engaged? If so, where are those results. If not, why not?

    Do the Feds survey the numerous contractors to determine if their workforce is engaged? Probably not? Given that most of the federal budget and service delivery goes to state and local agencies and contractor to deliver wouldn’t it make sense to see how these folks are engaged? Considering what Gallup says about unengaged managers and actively disengaged manager, the economy loses some $70 to $319 billion dollars annually. How much effectiveness in government service, thus frustrating the citizens government service, is lost due to unengaged managers and employees?

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