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October 2020
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TD Magazine

The Solution to Overcoming Engagement Obstacles

These strategies work to bolster employee engagement in the federal government.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents government leaders with unique opportunities to strengthen trust with employees and take employee engagement to new heights. At a time characterized by uncertainty and anxiety regarding employee health, safety, and financial security, Gallup has found that employees look for leaders who embody four universal attributes: trust, compassion, stability, and hope.

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As federal agencies resume normal operations, employees will look for signs that leaders care about their well-being. What actions are senior leaders taking to protect them? How well are they keeping employees informed, and to what extent are they involving employees in making decisions that affect them? How are they responding to employee concerns?

How leaders respond at a time of structural and human transitions will make a difference. They have an opportunity to reset the organizational climate for the better—even in these very difficult circumstances.

Employee engagement hurdles

When results from the 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey come in, they will be useful for conducting a crosswalk and seeing how they compare with the findings from a May 2020 Gallup poll, which found that the percentage of engaged workers in the US reached 38 percent—the highest since Gallup began tracking the metric in 2000.

In the meantime, it is important to consider numerous structural factors that make it challenging for federal leaders at every level to build and sustain a culture of employee engagement even in normal operations.

Changes in presidential administrations. Inevitable changes in the senior political leadership, coupled with turnover of career senior executives due to attrition, often result in the loss of momentum on employee engagement initiatives. For instance, a change in presidential administrations can mean there are vastly different strategic priorities and goals. It is common for incoming leaders to question policies and initiatives established under the immediate past administration and either undo them or brand them differently. This turnover in senior political and career leadership results in starts, stops, and resets with respect to employee engagement initiatives—generating employee cynicism and making it difficult to generate sustained high levels of engagement.

Unplanned closures and interruptions. In recent years, federal agencies have had to deal with unprecedented difficulties, including a 35-day government shutdown and furlough and the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the complexity and scope of such challenges, agency leaders must pivot and focus their energies on tending to the crisis at hand. The risks, uncertainty, and additional workload heaped on employees during times of crisis create undue stress on the system and employees.

Geographically dispersed federal workforce. Anecdotal evidence from field employees suggests that they often feel disconnected. Some perceive that promotions and other opportunities are more plentiful for employees based in Washington, DC. In the absence of frequent communication with senior leaders, rumors can take root and take on a life of their own.

Various statutes, regulations, and government-wide policies, particularly with respect to pay and benefits. Career senior executives and supervisors must abide by the broad policy decisions that department and agency heads make regarding the granting of telework, maxi-flex, and other HR flexibilities. While they can exercise some degree of discretion, those leaders must stay within the left and right limits established by congressional statute, the Office of Management and Budget or Office of Personnel Management, and the most senior leaders of their respective organizations.

Tried-and-true leadership strategies

To build a culture of employee engagement, leaders must demonstrate that they care about their employees. Below are timeless strategies and techniques that leaders and managers may consider adopting to create and sustain a positive work environment as federal agencies reopen and transition to a new normal.

Sharpen your focus. While it is tempting to get numerous employee engagement initiatives under way, resist the urge to do so. Given limited bandwidth and time, prioritize, invest in areas that matter most to your employees, and highlight key themes in your employee messaging.

It is far better to demonstrate that the organization has moved the needle on what you consider high priorities rather than dilute your focus, embark on many initiatives, and not make meaningful progress on any of them. If you limit the number of focal areas to three, you can concentrate efforts on what matters most to employees, and there will be a higher likelihood that they will remember what was accomplished.

Bridge the disconnect between senior leadership's and employees' priorities. When I worked as a management consultant in the corporate world, I was surprised by the types of concerns that rank-and-file employees raised during meetings senior leadership convened. While the chief executive officers were eager to share their grand vision and lay out a strategic road map, employees had other concerns. Employees were focused on such matters as how leadership would work to ensure pay parity and compensation structures and whether the company would offer transit subsidy benefits; or they worried about changes to the performance management system and how the changes would affect them.

As I moved into public service and assumed leadership responsibilities across four cabinet-level federal agencies, I've observed a similar type of gap between what's important to senior leaders versus employees. For instance, today's federal employees care about telework, flexible work schedules, and expanded opportunities for professional development and training.

Involve employees in developing strategy, plans, and solutions. Employees want opportunities to shape decisions. As you articulate your bold vision for the organization's future, create avenues for workers to voice their concerns—and then address those concerns within the parameters that your department or agency head has established. Remember: Employees have often observed the problem up close, and their insights into what has worked and what hasn't are priceless.

By involving staff early in decision making, you create a culture of shared ownership. What's more, employees are the ones who will have to implement the solutions and live with the consequences. They will be reluctant to design or energetically implement an impractical solution or one they believe creates unnecessary work.

Champion employee ideas—even in the face of anticipated opposition. Due to government's hierarchical nature, it can be challenging for employees' ideas to bubble up to senior decision makers. They must count on others at higher ranks to invite them to brief senior leaders. Because junior employees or frontline supervisors are closest to the work, they are often better positioned to offer ideas for process improvements. Employees are more motivated and respect leaders who create an environment where good ideas thrive.

Communicate decisions and be transparent. Explain to employees the underlying rationale for your and your superiors' decisions. Be mindful that you need to keep informed even those who are tangentially affected.

It is natural to inadvertently overlook that employees may not have a full understanding of the problems leaders have spent hours tackling because their minds have been focused on addressing customer issues, solving a technical problem, and so forth. Consulting with your staff early in the process builds trust by demonstrating that you care about what they think and how your decisions will affect them.

Advocate for necessary resources. When an organization is directed to assume expanded missions, become an advocate for any additional resources (whether it's headcount or funding) required to carry out new responsibilities and functions. When resources are scarce, the demands placed upon employees may become excessive as mission creep continues unabated. Unfortunately, few senior leaders have the courage to say no to their superiors, and they continue to accept new responsibilities without question and delegate to others the sometimes-impossible task of carrying out responsibilities without essential resources.

You will gain your team's respect if you have the courage to go to bat for the additional funding and headcount required to execute new missions. Conversely, if you fail to step up and ask for more resources, you will likely be scorned.

Conduct frequent check-ins. They keep the lines of communication open, particularly in times of crisis. Share information with employees, allay their fears, and address their concerns. At times of high uncertainty, employees recognize that leaders may not have all the answers. Nevertheless, they are thirsting for information on the latest developments. Even if the information is incomplete and may not be actionable, it gives employees insight into where leaders are in the planning process and what their initial thinking is.

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As plans mature, it would be even better to pulse your employees and solicit their views in shaping decisions that affect them. Soliciting their input is a subtle way of demonstrating that you value their opinions and respect them.

Express appreciation and recognize employees' contributions. Many employees who work diligently to bring high-impact, large-scale initiatives to fruition yearn for their superiors to recognize their contributions. Getting recognized for a job well done can uplift an employee's spirits—particularly if the recognition is public and done by, or in front of, the organization's senior-most leaders and the employee's peers. Senior leader recognition reinforces employees' views that their life's work has meaning and that their contributions matter.

In addition, workers appreciate personal calls, handwritten notes, and in-person drop-ins, particularly in turbulent times or at times when the employee may be facing a personal issue. Reach out to demonstrate that you care about them personally. During that interaction, refrain from tasking them. Doing so will dilute the central message of appreciation that you are aiming to convey.

Advocate for the promotion of workers who deserve it. When an employee has worked in an organization for a long time, it is easy for leaders to take that person for granted. At different levels of any given organization, employees often express frustration that their promotion potential has been capped. Publicly championing the promotion of employees who prove their mettle will not only win their loyalty and improve retention but also send powerful signals to other workers that those who consistently perform at high levels will be rewarded. It also sends a message that the organization's leaders will create opportunities for upward mobility for those who have earned it.

Engagement and L&D

Investing in professional development is critical to employee engagement. Employees who aspire to greater leadership responsibilities will value leaders who recognize their leadership potential, talents, and contributions to the organization. Equipping them with the mindset and tools to become better leaders through coaching; mentorship; and progressive, sequential leader development courses sends a signal to high-potential aspiring leaders that the organization is investing in them. The scope of the methods of professional development can include leadership development, professional education, functional and technical training, certifications, mentorship, and coaching.

Provide coaching and mentorship. Offer supervisors, managers, and executive leaders opportunities to select and consult with a leadership coach. In government, dealing with a wide range of thorny personnel issues is a given. A coach will listen attentively, identify blind spots, and work with leaders to address people challenges in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. Alternatively, encourage employees to find trusted mentors who are outside of their chain of command to help them navigate through key decision points regarding their careers, knock down roadblocks, and chart a path forward.

Forge new paths for high-potential employees. For high-potential employees who have consistently demonstrated a track record of strong performance, give them wings to fly. For those who exhibit strong leadership potential, consider nominating them for entry into the White House Leadership Development Program, CXO Fellows Program, or the President's Management Council Interagency Rotation Program. Participation in one of those programs will broaden their aperture by exposing them to the way in which senior leaders at the Office of Management and Budget and across federal agencies in the executive branch think and operate. Alternatively, permit high potentials to complete an interagency rotation to learn about how different federal agencies operate, what their organizational cultures are like, and how to adapt to new environments.

Create stretch assignments and other career opportunities. For more junior employees who feel like they've hit a brick wall in their careers, inquire about and facilitate their pursuit of broader professional interests through intraorganizational detail opportunities. Leaders may be reluctant to let employees explore possibilities due to fears that no one is there to backfill any openings, but it is important to create a culture of mobility where your employees can make lateral moves or assume temporary promotions. That requires the organization to build redundancy and maybe cross-train employees so that they are equipped to perform a variety of functions. Otherwise, employees who feel maxed out will likely leave.

Retaining high-performing employees will often require leaders to come up with creative staffing plans that offer employees the opportunity to broaden their areas of expertise and assume greater leadership, managerial, and supervisory responsibilities while ensuring sufficient organizational bench strength to fulfill mission-critical responsibilities.

Employee engagement is a shared responsibility

Employees need to understand that they, too, play an important role in creating and sustaining favorable work conditions. Create a paradigm shift away from a "What have you done for me lately?" mindset toward building a culture where everyone at every level shares the responsibility for lifting employee engagement. By encouraging others, embracing teamwork and collaboration, and lending a helping hand, everyone—from the most senior leader to the frontline employee—can play a huge role in making their organization a great place to work.

Let's seize the moment and take advantage of this opportunity in time to boost employee confidence in their leaders. Taking care of federal employees and meeting them at their point of need will yield dividends by generating higher levels of commitment, performance, and quality of services delivered.

About the Author

C. Natalie Lui Duncan, a career member of the Senior Executive Service, has served across four cabinet-level federal agencies, in multiple industry sectors, and on boards of directors of nonprofit organizations over the span of two decades. She possesses strategic and business operations experience across a broad range of professional disciplines. Her portfolio has encompassed a full spectrum of human capital management and administrative management functions.

Duncan was awarded two degrees by Stanford University: a master of arts degree in sociology - organizational studies, and a bachelor of arts degree in history. She is a SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP) in human resource management.

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