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Sustaining Change and Boosting Government Employee Engagement


Mon Aug 01 2016

Sustaining Change and Boosting Government Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is a difficult concept to nail down, especially when it comes to strategies for boosting it. However, during my time as the Inspector General for the Tennessee Valley Authority, I’ve learned there are several proven strategies for boosting engagement, as well as several strategies to avoid. 

The TVA OIG is currently the number one ranked government agency for the OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey in 2015. But that wasn’t always the case. Five years ago, our employee engagement rates were very low, as was morale. Prior to the turnaround, the OIG was using some commonplace strategies to boost engagement. While we meant well like most leaders, these strategies ended up being self-defeating.


From the times of low engagement, we identified five failing strategies that should be avoided:

  • Introducing programs that in one way or the other focus on "fixing" the employee

  • Starting at the wrong place without having done the right diagnostics

  • Beginning yet another change management program without a rational sustainability plan

  • Making the success of the program depend on how long the money lasts

  • Being primarily a management-driven effort to improve employee engagement. 

Despite a very clear track record of failure, those five strategies are employed with regularity every day by organization hoping to get different results.

Instead, agencies should look for engagement solutions that actually work. For the TVA OIG, these were the five strategies that made us one of the "Best Places to Work" in 2015:

  • Starting with a realistic sustainability plan

  • Getting leaders to go first on the really hard stuff which I call "Me First Leadership"

  • Stressing mutual accountability that means management is accountable to employees as well as employees being accountability to management

  • Creating a version of a "Leadership Council"

  • Working the employees' "fix this list."

Of all these strategies, having a realistic sustainability plan is probably the most important. So many times an organization experiences a crisis and throws money at a culture problem without thinking through how that latest "flavor of the month" can be sustained.

Most employees have seen these programs die because their experience has been that a "program" has a very definite beginning and a then suffers a fuzzy, whimpering death. Few leaders have ever had the experience of not only navigating a successful culture change where employee engagement improved, but also leading a change that actually last for many years.


The vast majority of change management efforts fail because the change model is long on a burst of effort on the front end, but little thought is given to the risks to sustainability that eventually kill the effort over time.

This is really madness… organizations buy into the same change management models that fail 65  to 70 percent of the time, and this has been true for decades. It not only wastes the organization's money, but more importantly, it ensures that employees will lose trust in management and refuse to "get on board" the next time a new group of leaders comes in with the latest and greatest change effort.

For a deeper dive into this topic, join me September 7 at the Government Workforce Conference for the session: Measuring Change: Building an Environment for Engagement.

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