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Overcoming Barriers to Improved Employee Engagement (Part 2)

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

By Robert Lavigna
October 7, 2016


In my last two columns, I outlined reasons why I believe the level of employee engagement in many organizations, including in government, is low. In my August column, I identified eight possible explanations for why engagement is low. There are probably more, but these are the barriers I’ve encountered in my work and research, including for my book Engaging Government Employees. The reasons:

  • We still don’t have a common understanding of employee engagement.
  • Leaders don’t see the connection between engagement and performance.
  • Organizations don’t know their current level of engagement.
  • Managers may want to improve engagement, but don’t know how.
  • Engagement is viewed as a human resource (HR) project.
  • When organizations conduct employee engagement surveys, they don’t act on the results.
  • Engagement surveys aren’t conducted regularly.
  • Improving engagement is seen solely as management’s job, and not a shared responsibility with employees.

In September, I outlined suggestions to overcome the first four barriers. This month, I cover the last four. 

Engagement as an HR project

As a career HR practitioner, it pains me to admit that efforts to improve employee engagement will not succeed if they are viewed as simply another HR project.

Instead, successful engagement initiatives must complement, or be directly linked to, the organization’s overall strategy. At the University of Wisconsin, we explicitly connected measuring and improving engagement to a key university strategic goal – to “attract and retain talent.” This was a practical as well as symbolic linkage. We weren’t focusing on engagement for its own sake, but rather to help achieve a key campus strategic priority. While HR did champion and facilitate measuring and improving engagement, we tried hard not to position this as just another HR project.

Not acting on survey results

When employees are asked to provide their views and perspectives on workplace conditions, they expect the organization to do something with the results. If action isn’t taken, the survey will be a de-motivator, and the organization will actually be worse off. In other words, not taking action is a recipe for failure. One city compared the engagement levels of the city departments that had acted on engagement survey results to the departments that had not acted. The departments that took action had engagement levels 50 percentage points higher than the units that did not act.

Not surveying regularly 

Organizations committed to improving engagement must take a long-term view. This includes regularly measuring engagement to see if the needle of engagement is moving in the right direction. How else can we know this? Several years ago, public sector HR directors were asked what percent of their employees were engaged. The directors said that engagement levels in their agencies and jurisdictions were as high as 90 percent.

If true, this would be remarkable. However, since these were guesses, who knows what the real levels were? Regularly surveying employees is the best way to determine if the organization is taking the right steps to improve engagement.

Engagement as management’s job and not a shared responsibility with employees 

There is growing recognition that we can’t just depend on management to improve engagement, even if management’s actions are directly driven by survey data. The road to improved engagement is a two-way street, with front-line employees playing a key role in the dialogue. Writer and consultant, Kevin Sheridan, has advocated for an employee “engagement selfie,” in which each employee receives the results of his/her own engagement survey. In this way, front-line employees can have candid and data-based discussions with their supervisors about what is working to motivate them and what isn’t. Another well-known expert, Marshal Goldsmith, recommends that, each day, employees should ask themselves six questions:  Did I do my best to…

  • Set clear goals?
  • Make progress toward goals?
  • Be happy?
  • Find meaning in my work?
  • Build positive relationships?
  • Be fully engaged? 

As I wrote last month, improving employee engagement can be a powerful tool to improve individual and organizational performance – if done strategically and authentically. As one public sector official put it, “If you don’t start with the workforce, how can you reach the public? 18,000 ambassadors are better than 18,000 assassins.”

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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