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Two Great Ways to Improve Employee Engagement in Government


Thu Mar 31 2016

Two Great Ways to Improve Employee Engagement in Government

ATD 2016 speaker Stewart Liff discusses two great ways to improve engagement in government workers: 1) train supervisors or 2) train everyone.

One of the hottest topics in government is employee engagement. Due to the relatively poor results on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), agencies are taking a variety of actions to improve in this area. Simply put, they recognize that improved employee engagement will result in better performance, more satisfied customers, lower turnover, and so forth.


The question, of course, is what do you do? Do you invest in additional supervisory training, ordo you take a more radical approach? Before you go forward, it is important to look at two broad options.

Option #1

One way to look at employee engagement is to examine the way you perform your work. The vast majority of organizations (both inside and outside of government) use a traditional work design, wherein there is a supervisor and a bunch of followers. I refer to this as a Stage 1 Team (see Figure 1).

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Under this design, the supervisor makes all of the key decisions, and the subordinates simply follow and do as they are told. Because so much is riding on the skills and abilities of the supervisor, investing in the supervisor’s development is absolutely crucial to improving morale.

When developing supervisors, making sure they are skilled in the following areas will go a long way toward ensuring that they will work well with their team or unit and foster a more engaged and committed workforce. In essence, great supervisors:

  • have the right philosophy; they believe that people want to do a great job 

  • treat people well • continuously communicate in a whole-brained fashion 

  • consistently manage through systems and ensure there are reliable consequences for every level of performance and behavior 

  • deal with difficult people.

Under this approach, the expectation is the better the supervisor, the higher the degree of employee engagement. As a result, it is highly dependent on finding/building/keeping great supervisors, which is not an easy thing to do. Option #2


Under this approach, you completely change the way work is performed. Instead of working under the traditional pyramid with an all-knowing supervisor, you redesign the work so that everyone is a leader as shown below in a Stage 5 Team (See Figure 2).

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This design provides the team with greater flexibility. Everyone is trained to take on more tasks—and they are able to step up and provide leadership. Because each employee is involved in planning, goal setting, and managing performance, they will have a greater stake in the team’s outcomes and become more engaged and committed. Meanwhile, the supervisors can refocus their time on other high-level tasks, such as strategic planning, benchmarking, and cross-functional activities.

Obviously, no organization can snap its fingers, change its work design, and expect miracles overnight. Teams do not magically go from Stage 1 to Stage 5; they progress through a series of stages.

This takes careful planning, time, energy, and high-level commitment. What’s more, it requires a willingness to stay the course when problems develop, as they most certainly will. In the long run, this design will result in a much more engaged and committed federal workforce that will achieve results.

No doubt, developing your supervisors will help improve employee engagement. Due to its inherent advantages over the traditional work design, though, I believe that Option #2 is the future of work.


To dig deeper into this issue, join me at ATD 2016 International Conference & Exposition. During my highly interactive session “Two Great Ways to Improve Employee Engagement in Government,” we will discover how to apply time-tested principles for managing employees and improving engagement of the federal workforce.

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