For the past decade or so, new technology and systems have been
prominent in performance improvement initiatives. Scorecards and
performance measurement have been promoted as an answer for
performance problems. Over this period, the term human capital has
become prominent in both business and government publications.
One of the threads that runs through books on this subject and is a
frequent research topic is employee engagement. The repeated
conclusion from those analyses is that employees with a heightened
sense of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral connection to their
work perform at higher levels. Stated differently, engaged
employees have their hearts and minds committed to generating the
results to make their employer successful.
Much of the analyses show the central and dominant factor in
employee engagement is the effectiveness of a workers immediate
supervisor. To this point, however, federal agencies have generally
underinvested in the development of a cadre of frontline
supervisors with the capabilities to engender the levels of
engagement that will trigger improved performance.
The Power of Employee Engagement
In traditional management thinking, people are merely cogs in the
wheel, easily replaced and sometimes even expendable. Efficiency
experts analyzed worker activities and set performance standards.
Managers and supervisors made the decisions.
This began to change when the 1990 recession forced U.S. companies
to transform the way they were managed to become more competitive.
The downturn triggered the idea of reengineering as companies
sought ways to improve operations. These changes marked a shift
away from tight management control to greater employee empowerment.
The key to that shift is accepting the idea that employees at all
levels should be managed as a key asset in achieving organizational
success. This was first highlighted by the investment community and
the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which held an early
conference on intellectual capital. For a rapidly growing list of
companies such as Microsoft and Google, in which assets walk out
the door every night, effectively managing knowledge workers is
central to core strategy. That is obviously true for government as
Knowledge workers are most valuable when they are empowered to use
their knowledge. That involves far more autonomy and trust from
their supervisorsa viewpoint that is difficult for some managers to
accept. This involves a redefinition of the supervisors role and
the renegotiation of what is referred to as the psychological
contract with workers. It will take time for both sides to become
comfortable, and it is only successful if employees and supervisors
have the requisite job skills and can develop a shared sense of
responsibility for achieving unit goals.
This commitment to job success is often referred to as employee
engagement. Its been defined by one prominent research organization
as a heightened emotional connection that an employee feels for his
or her organization, that influences him or her to exert greater
discretionary effort to his or her work.
Researchers have explored a long list of job and work system
elements to develop an understanding of what contributes to that
emotional connection. The common thread running through the many
studies is the importance of frontline supervisors because they
reside at the point of contact for the relationship between
organizations and employees.
Gallup got on the employee engagement bandwagon nearly a decade ago
when it used its extensive survey database to look at the
relationship between employee views of their work experience and
performance. They identified 12 survey questionsthe Gallups Q12that
high performers typically answer differently than poor performers.
They now use the responses to categorize employees as engaged, not
engaged, and actively disengaged. The actively disengaged are
usually problem employees.
Gallups analyses confirm that engaged employees perform better.
Because results or productivity cannot be measured for many jobs,
they focus on a series of universal measures, including grievances,
customer satisfaction, turnover and absenteeism, quality and
safety, and general profitability. Those organizations with an
engaged workforce score higher across the measures.
The Gallup gauge of an organizations situation is the ratio of
engaged employees to those who are actively disengaged. Their
analyses of worldclass companies show that engaged employees
outnumber the actively disengaged by almost 10:1. For average
performing companies, the ratio is less than 2:1.
Significantly, Gallups analyses show that public employers have
fewer engaged and more actively disengaged employees than private
industry. According to data from their clientsmore than 500
organizations and over 6.5 million respondentsfrom 2007 to 2009:
- government employers have 29 percent engaged employees compared
with the overall database of 43 percent
- government employers have 53 percent nonengaged employees
compared with the overall database of 44 percent
- government employers have 18 percent actively disengaged
employees compared with the overall database of 13 percent
- the ration of engaged to actively disengaged for government is
1.6:1, and more than double that for the overall database of 3.3:1.
The Gallup website reports that the majority of public
employeesthose who are not engagedcome to work, do what they are
asked to do, but do not do more than required.
Tapping Underused Employee Capabilities
True high performance does not flow from technology or expert
analyses. Those initiatives typically lead to incremental
productivity gains, which are important but far below the potential
when workers are fully engaged. Meta-analysis that looked at
several hundred productivity studies concluded that with an
integrated workforce strategy, employers can expect performance
gains of at least 30 to 40 percent.
The breakthrough gains come when workers are committed to the
organizations success and empowered to use their full capabilities.
The typical worker, in public and private organizations, has a job
with assigned duties that are routine and undemanding. This is
compounded in government by rules and regulations that impede
workers from tackling and solving new problems.
Pockets of high performance can be attributable to the way
employees are managed. Supervisors make the difference. High
performance involves managers who understand how to engage their
people. They enable employees to be comfortable showing initiative
and tackling problems.
Supporting Improved Supervisor Effectiveness
Studies are often silent on another important consideration:
supervisors also perform at their best when they are engaged. The
last thing any agency needs is an actively disengaged manager.
Stated positively: the goal of creating a highly engaged workforce
should be a priority at every level.
Within government, people often choose public service as their
career as opposed to their particular niche. Their decision to
become a manager happens later.
While it was common in the past to select supervisors based
primarily on their technical skills, organizations today base
decisions on a candidates soft skills, such as emotional
intelligence. Technical skills are still important, especially for
jobs that involve complex technical problems, but a key selection
factor includes an individuals ability to develop effective working
To develop effective and engaged supervisors, training is
essential. New supervisors still need to study the
basicsregulations, appraisal forms, goal setting, and so forthbut
they also need the know-how to handle unexpected problems. This
suggests implementing access to just-in-time e-learning resources
focused on specific issues.
Performance Should Have Consequences
The primary concern, is helping supervisors develop effective
coaching and mentoring styles. A key step in the process is an
honest evaluation of individual strengths and weaknesses, focusing
on practices such as providing feedback known to contribute to
engagement. Ideally the process should involve input from their
staff as well as peers.
There is a widely used model for evaluating managers and
supervisors: the criteria are referred to as the what and the how.
The what (results) may not be obvious to every supervisor, but the
how (important behaviors and competencies) can always be defined.
People always need feedback if they are to improve; this is
especially true for newly promoted supervisors because they need to
master new skills.
Support is wasted, however, if there is an inadequate commitment to
developing more effective supervisors. Agency leaders need to make
developing supervisors and leaders a priority. Buy-in for this from
all levels of management will ultimately lead to increased employee
engagement and improved organizational performance.
The next step is linking positive consequences for high
performance. The most straightforward policy for achieving this is
pay for performance. In government it is sometimes difficult to
hold supervisors accountable for results, but employee engagement
scores are a fully defensible and logical indicator of a
supervisors effectiveness that can be linked to salary increases.