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Improving Employee Engagement – Who’s Really Responsible?

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

By Robert Lavigna
July 1, 2016

A few months ago, the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) issued its fiscal year 2015 Annual Report. The report includes a statement that got me thinking – and also got me a little agitated.

But first, let me say that I have enormous respect for MSPB’s work, especially its studies. I quote the Board’s research extensively in my book, Engaging Government Employees. Simply stated, I think MSPB has done the best research anywhere on why improving engagement in government matters.

My issue relates to a statement in the Annual Report about employee engagement (my underlining):

… although (federal) agency leaders can influence the work environment and other drivers of employee engagement, they are far from the only factor that affect (sic) an employee’s level of engagement as measured by instruments such as the FEVS (Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey). In the short term, in particular, indicators of employee satisfaction and engagement can be greatly affected by externally-directed changes in policy, budget or structure. Also, it may be necessary for agency leaders to undertake, in the long term public or agency interest, actions that are disruptive to both organizations and individuals. In such situations, effective leadership could result in short-term decreases, rather than increases, in employee engagement. Finally, employees themselves must be active participants in their own engagement … For these reasons … it appears counterproductive to hold agencies or individual executives accountable for a particular increase (or decrease) in any measure of employee engagement.

My response to this is twofold. First, how can leaders be held accountable for sustaining and improving engagement if they don’t have measurable engagement goals? Sure, there are external forces that can affect engagement, but most of the factors that drive engagement can be directly influenced by leaders.

For example, in its annual “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings, the Partnership for Public Service identified leadership as the No. 1 driver of employee satisfaction across the entire federal government.

More broadly, the Gallup organization identified three ways organizations can improve engagement:  select the right managers, develop employees’ strengths and enhance employees’ well-being. Leaders can – and should – focus on the first two factors to improve engagement. And even the third factor, employee well-being, needs to be on our radar. We need to recognize that employees should be able to attend to their personal as well as their work lives. This means providing workplace flexibility and opportunities for employees to achieve well-being.

Given this research, I think it makes sense to hold managers measurably accountable for maintaining or improving employee engagement.

Some private sector companies incorporate improvement in employee engagement survey scores as part of managers’ performance expectations and measures and even consider engagement results in compensation decisions.

While I don’t advocate basing compensation on engagement scores or penalizing leaders who don’t improve engagement, I believe in setting measurable goals, including for improving engagement.

In my organization, the Office of Human Resources at the University of Wisconsin (I will be retiring as director on July 1), we targeted three statements from our engagement survey as areas we committed to improve. We measured improvement based on scores in the next survey. The statements:

  • Work is distributed equitably in my unit.
  • Recognition is based on performance in my work unit.
  • Overall, I am satisfied with the managers/leaders above my supervisor. 

Our analysis showed that these statements are important drivers of engagement, and we willingly “owned” them. We took action to address these areas. We were pleased and relieved that our most recent engagement survey results showed improvement.

However, despite my misgivings about the MSPB statement, my second reaction is that I completely agree that improving engagement isn’t just a management responsibility. Too often, we view improving employee engagement as exclusively the province of management. To the contrary, all employees also have a responsibility to help create an engaged workforce, by communicating with their leaders about what is important to them, about their developmental needs and how they believe the organization can perform better.

Engagement expert Kevin Sheridan calls for an “engagement selfie.” What he means is that each individual employee should understand his/her own engagement profile and drivers, as part of taking ownership for engagement. For organizations that conduct engagement surveys, this could mean providing each employee with her/her own individual survey results. Employees can then have candid two-way conversations with their managers/supervisors about what it will take to improve their individual engagement levels.

When I speak about employee engagement, I often distribute a 16-question engagement survey , ask attendees to complete and score it, and then discuss their results in small groups. These can be very revealing discussions.

So, my bottom line is that while engagement is a shared responsibility, leaders have a special duty to focus on improving engagement in their work units. This can, and should, include setting specific and measurable goals for improving engagement. After all, if we don’t set goals and measure our progress, how will we ever make any?


Author: Bob Lavigna is retiring from his position as assistant vice chancellor and director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin. He has accepted a position with CPS HR Consulting, an independent government agency, to focus on public sector employee engagement. He previously worked at the Partnership for Public Service and the U.S. Government Accountability Office. 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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