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Improving Employee Engagement: It Takes Leaders With Courage

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

By Bob Lavigna
November 25, 2019

As I’ve repeatedly detailed in this space, decades of research have shown that employee engagement drives organizational performance, and that leadership is a key driver of engagement. For example, the annual, “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government,” ratings and ranking of more than 400 federal agencies and subcomponents has consistently shown that leadership is the most important driver of engagement across the entire federal government, and in most individual federal agencies and subcomponents.

Our Institute’s annual national survey has also consistently revealed that leadership is the number one driver of engagement in both the private and public sectors, and in all three levels of government.

In other words, high-engagement organizations have leaders who create the environment for employees to feel a strong connection to the organization and its mission, the work itself and their colleagues. As a result, these organizations excel.

Leaders of high-engagement organizations are visible, encourage and value employee ideas, communicate well, exemplify the values of their organizations, manage change well and put in place changes that are viewed as positive.

Just as important, however, is the leader’s commitment to measuring engagement and then taking action to improve it.

This came to mind when I read the recently released benchmarking report, “Employee Engagement and Retention,” by the International Public Management Association for Human Resources. The report summarizes survey responses from 417 human resources leaders and professionals in federal, state and local government.

The survey included questions about barriers to both measuring and improving engagement, and the respondents cited leadership as a key barrier to both. For example, “Lack of support from leadership,” was a leading reason why their organizations do not measure engagement. Likewise, “Leadership support,” was the number one obstacle to taking action to improve engagement.

In our work at the Institute, we’ve also experienced these barriers. That is, leaders who are reluctant (even afraid) to measure engagement, and also hesitate to take action to improve engagement.

This is troubling because improving engagement begins with understanding how engaged the workforce is, and what influences (drives) employees’ engagement. This means measuring and analyzing engagement. Research shows that the most effective way to measure engagement is to survey employees on how they feel about their work environment and the organization’s culture.

However, in the fishbowl environment of government, it takes courage for leaders to survey their employees, especially in state and local government. In the federal government, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management conducts the annual governmentwide Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

However, it’s a different story for most state and local government jurisdictions and for agencies that don’t have this centralized support who often must go at it alone. This can be a daunting prospect. After all, what if the organization conducts a survey and finds that its workforce is largely disengaged? In the private sector, results like these would likely not become public. But in government, almost everything we do and produce—including employee survey results—can potentially become public.

This kind of transparency creates risk and can cause a leader to think twice about whether to survey employees. I’ve heard HR folks say they want to launch an engagement survey but can’t get senior leaders to commit. And even when an organization does conduct a survey, it takes leadership commitment to take action on the results.

It also takes courage.

A colleague likes to say that leaders can react to employee survey results by essentially cycling through the grief process. That is, denial, followed by anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.

An exaggeration? Sure, but with a grain of truth. I’ve been in conversations with leaders who, after hearing the results of their organization’s engagement survey, question the results (especially when employees say that the organization needs better leadership). Some leaders even react by pushing back on the survey methodology.

These conversations with leaders can be tough, but usually lead, eventually, to acceptance and action. And I’ve been on both sides of this discussion, not only delivering survey results but also receiving them for my own department, so I know how difficult this can be.

That’s why a particularly good time to conduct an engagement survey is when a new leader takes over. Because the new leader doesn’t own any problems the survey may reveal, but can own the solutions. In other words, the political risk is low.

But, more generally, why should leaders take the risk to measure engagement, and then take action on the results?

Because things worth doing can be difficult. I know that’s a cliché, but I think it applies here. We can’t manage what we can’t measure. That’s just as true for the engagement of public-sector employees as it is for anything else in government that is important.

In fact, I believe that focusing on engagement is even more important. Because engagement drives performance, especially in government, where our main resource is talent. Government needs data to measure—and then improve—employee engagement.

Otherwise, without data, we’re just guessing. And the stakes are in government are too high to just guess.

Author: Bob Lavigna is director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a unit of CPS HR consulting, an independent government agency. The institute was created to help government organizations measure and improve engagement. His previous positions include assistant vice chancellor and director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, vice president of research at the Partnership for Public Service and administrator of the state of Wisconsin civil service system. He can be reached at [email protected]

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