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Managerial Competencies – A Key to Employee Engagement

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

By Bob Lavigna
April 6, 2018

Research by my organization and others has shown that leadership and supervision are key influences on (drivers of) the level of employee engagement in public-sector organizations. In government, we depend on our managers and supervisors to build and maintain high-engagement organizations.

And research has also shown that employee engagement is linked to outcomes that matter in government. Outcomes that include achieving strategic goals, delivering responsive customer service, improving productivity, boosting attendance and reducing turnover.

But what does it really mean to say that we depend on leaders to build and maintain high-engagement organizations. When I speak about this to government leaders, some say, “Sure, we want our employees to be engaged, but how do I make that happen.”

Good question, because if we expect managers and supervisors to build high-engagement organizations, we need to be clear on what that means, and what they need to do to succeed.

One government agency committed to measuring and improving engagement responded to this need by developing a set of managerial/supervisory competencies around employee engagement and inclusion. This agency believes that engagement and inclusion are two sides of the same coin, and therefore integrated the two concepts into a single initiative.

This agency realized a key to improving engagement was to focus on leaders – particularly managers and front-line supervisors. The organization also realized that if leaders were going to create and sustain high-engagement teams, they needed to understand what they needed to do to achieve this goal.

After much discussion, the agency created a set of managerial and supervisory competencies geared to engagement and inclusion.

The competencies, listed below, start at a high level (“provides strong and effective leadership”) but then drill down to more specifics.

The competencies:

  • Provides strong and effective leadership to ensure the work unit is high-performing and achieves its mission
  • Creates a positive climate – sets a clear strategy, identifies goals and expectations, defines core values, provides regular feedback and support, and recognizes and rewards performance and accomplishments
  • Supports and assists employees in learning and development
  • Creates an inclusive work environment
  • Provides leadership in talent acquisition and management by actively participating in activities such as hiring, staffing and onboarding that contribute to engagement and inclusion

Agency managers and supervisors responded positively (most of them did anyway) but asked for more. The wanted to know what, exactly, did they have to do to demonstrate their mastery of these competencies?

Another good question.

In response, the HR office developed a set of behaviors linked to these competencies. Some examples:

  • Develops and communicates mission, direction, priorities, goals and actions that support the larger organization’s mission and strategy
  • Establishes metrics to assess individual and organizational performance
  • Holds self and others accountable for high-quality, timely, and cost-effective results
  • Communicates in a way that is transparent, informative and clear
  • Empowers others to make good decisions
  • Solicits feedback, and creates an environment where others can speak and act
  • Deals effectively and fairly with performance and personnel problems
  • Sets employee expectations; and provides feedback, coaching and evaluations
  • Encourages risk-taking, and supports creativity and initiative
  • Develops fair and transparent recognition and rewards systems
  • Facilitates learning and development by assigning work that enhances knowledge and experience
  • Provides access to other development resources
  • Builds a positive and cooperative team environment
  • Shows care and concern for employees

But merely identifying these competencies and behaviors wasn’t enough. The agency also developed a training curriculum that included three courses:

  1.  creating a high-engagement organization;
  2.  building and maintaining a diverse workforce; and,
  3. recruiting and hiring for diversity.

The chief executive – the sponsor of the engagement and inclusion initiative – then explained to the agency’s managers and supervisors that the training wasn’t mandatory. However, he was going to hold them accountable for the competencies and behaviors through the performance management system.

In other words, as he said, “If you think that you’ve already mastered and demonstrated these competencies and behaviors, you don’t have to attend the training. It’s up to you, but you will be held accountable.”

So, what happened – did anyone attend the training?

Of course they did. Just about every manager and supervisor in the agency completed the three-session training curriculum. And despite some initial grumbling and misgivings, the evaluations of the programs were uniformly positive.

This organization has now conducted three engagement and inclusion surveys over six years. In both follow-up surveys, response rates and levels of engagement and inclusion all improved.

Can this uptick be attributed solely to the creation and implementation of the competencies and associated behaviors? No, but I believe this strategy was a major contributing factor.

The bottom line? If we want our managers and supervisors to act in ways that are important to our organization, we need to specify and define these behaviors and then hold our leaders accountable for them.


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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