Who should be held accountable for employee engagement in the federal workspace? Many different arguments and perspectives surface when this question is posed. Recently, the White House, the GAO, Cabinet leaders, the SES community, and direct managers have all been mentioned.
But in some ways, it is a misleading question. Engagement is addressed best when there is a collaborative accountability. Collaborative, or joint, accountability ensures that resources necessary to support engagement initiatives are planned for and allocated, targets are set, and managers are provided with refresher and advanced skills training needed to manage and lead daily activities.
While it might be a radical paradigm shift with respect to the current situation, it would make perfect sense to design and deploy a check and balance system of accountability. Such an approach would be consistent with the principles of government that hold the three branches of government accountable to one another. In the instance of engagement, this check and balance system should ensure that frontline managers to SES staff are held accountable only if budget authorizations are approved in a timely manner, and that such budgets make provisions for training leaders in improving employee engagement on a continuous basis.
Assuming that the budget authorization and allocation process provides for the necessary tools and techniques to appropriately and adequately lead and manage engagement efforts, there must be some consequence associated with not driving and achieving higher levels of engagement.
That seems to be where the current conversation is headed. However, in a joint accountability scenario the following would need to be in place:
Set a Baseline: With the introduction of consequences, a baseline must be established that would represent a starting point upon which improvement must be made. A timeframe would also need to be set. In our experience at The Ken Blanchard Companies, a two-year cycle would be an equitable timeframe that would give managers an opportunity to influence engagement outcomes.
Provide Training: A proven skill-building program that provides insights into key drivers of engagement can help focus the application of tools and techniques. This would allow agency managers to concentrate on specific interventions proven to influence engagement scores. The idea here is something new that goes beyond the standard satisfaction survey approach of the past. Knowing where employees draw their energy and passion from and how to address it is essential to focusing time and energy.
Measure Results: When we reference consequence, there has to be a tangible byproduct. One that has certainly captured a lot of attention recently has been indexing agency leader compensation to engagement scores. However, in the spirit of the two-year cycle (or window) for improvement, only the second year of the cycle would connect pay to engagement outcomes. This will provide the time to work through the responsibility, motivation, and attention all parties need to explore resources, budget, execution, and outcomes.
In working with organizations large and small in the government and private sectors, The Ken Blanchard Companies has found that a collaborative effort, where strategic and operational leaders work together, generates the best results. Employee engagement is a big issue. Plans, alone, won’t fix it. Accountability, alone, won’t fix it. Only collaborative efforts will generate the long-term, sustainable results that everyone is looking for.
Why do people work? Thinking beyond the basics (health insurance, income to meet obligations, etc.) is crucial for any agency leader looking to develop initiatives designed to improve engagement and productivity.
Asking why helps leaders identify ways to move from compliance to commitment. When that occurs, individuals and teams will put forth extra effort to achieve desired outcomes, contribute to continuous improvement efforts, and anticipate actions that will prevent undesired consequences.
Here are three methods for sparking a vested interest in your agency’s mission and moving individuals beyond compliance. (And they don’t require any incremental costs beyond fiscal year budgets!)
- Give employees a voice.
When employees feel as if they have a voice in how things get done, a vested interest is created. This vested interest builds commitment and a desire to exercise discretionary effort. Focus groups are a good place to start—they provide a forum for employees to respond to a basic framing question: “What’s working well and what’s not?” Be sure to create a safe harbor of anonymity where employees know their ideas and constructive feedback will not be met with punishment. Also, make sure that focus group ideas are acknowledged and acted upon.
- Use action learning projects.
Appoint teams to address potential solutions. In this context, requesting a team of individual contributors to explore options demonstrates that other views and opinions count and can make a difference. Moreover, individuals who normally do not work together can have an opportunity to collaborate and build connections across departments. A corresponding benefit is that the selection of individuals for these teams can be treated as a form of recognition.
- Create process improvement teams.
Launch a practice by which individuals can recommend changes. This practice will generate excitement about shaping agency practices and demonstrate that going beyond compliance can be rewarding. This is a place where a proven methodology such as Six Sigma can provide structure and a proven framework to ensure constructive channeling.
Empower Your People to Identify, Solve, and Recommend
When employees are asked to explore options, provide solutions, and recommend action steps, they become an extension of leadership and are increasingly engaged in agency decision making and success. Don’t miss the opportunity to inject a healthy dose of empowerment into your work environment. Give people an opportunity to contribute in ways beyond the basic need to work. You’ll be surprised at the difference it can make in turning a compliance mentality into commitment.
A true high performing culture provides an agency with its single greatest source of operational advantage and probability of achieving agency mission. It is no coincidence that the White House’s most recent budget contains language specifically connecting engagement to agency performance.
“…an employee’s investment in the mission of their organization is closely related to the organization’s overall performance. Engaged employees display greater dedication, persistence, and effort in their work, and better serve their customers—whether they are consumers or taxpayers.”
Appropriately, the 2016 budget for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) contains $66 million for leadership development, recognizing that agency leaders can enhance and leverage this expenditure by focusing on key areas such as:
Development of self. Individual contributors need to know how to provide feedback to their leaders, contribute to collaborative efforts, and constructively problem solve, and also must understand how agency values guide desired outcomes.
Development of first time leaders. Transitioning from an individual contributor to a leader of others is a critical shift. More often than not, individuals making this transition have not had prior training and development in this regard.
Continuous improvement training. As leaders advance to more progressive and expanded levels of responsibility, additional training will improve the capacity to drive the necessary elements of culture into workforce behaviors and outcomes. This will be of vital importance as the quantity of direct reports and overall responsibility expands both horizontally and vertically.
Culture as the Glue to Performance
The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) contains several statements correlating culture and leadership to performance:
- “I am constantly looking for ways to do my job better”
- “I am held accountable for achieving results”
- “Employees are recognized for providing high quality products and services”
- “My agency is successful at accomplishing its mission”
- “My supervisor listens to what I have to say”
- “Managers promote communication among different work units” (For example, communication about projects, goals, needed resources, etc.)
This sampling of FEVS statements illustrates the importance culture plays in defining and driving performance. For example, questions about recognition highlight the importance of using agency values as a way to recognize desired behaviors that support the agency’s mission.
When cultures are well defined and preserved, there is a direct correlation to performance. For leaders looking for ways to get started, here are six initial steps.
- Know what winning looks like. Agencies must define acceptable standards of performance and critical success factors, develop metrics to track progress, and embrace gap closure plans.
- Look outside as well as inside. While focusing on internal operations and policies is important, agencies must also adapt to external situations and influences to be a high performing organization.
- Think and act like an owner. Agency leadership must ensure that individuals at all levels take full responsibility for their behaviors and actions while embracing personal accountability for development and results.
- Commit to individuals. When investments are made to develop individuals and when performance is recognized, the workforce is engaged and committed to achieving maximum performance.
- Spread the courage to innovate. Maximum performance requires continuous improvement by developing systems for receiving input on how to enhance outcomes.
- Build trust through transparency. Performance is improved when the workforce understands leadership’s intent. When data about policy, direction, and performance is openly shared with healthy debate about decision making, a higher level of vested interest results.
To improve employee engagement and performance, focus on the large and small day-to-day ways your culture can be shaped. And don’t underestimate the role leaders play in that equation.
When faced with a changing marketplace or regulatory environment, a new technology, or a required shift in strategic direction, an organization’s established culture can impede progress and require change. As a case in point, one could argue the U.S. federal government is faced with just such a challenge as it deals with external and internal changes.
Externally, emerging cloud technologies and solutions are changing the way that documents are stored, shared, and updated. With regard to culture, cloud solutions will unleash important methods to support a new era of cross agency cooperation and an improved ability to harness intellectual capital and leverage the power of virtual teamwork.
Recent changes in the European financial markets will require global commerce policy to be more sensitive to how the U.S. responds. Changes to Swiss National Bank policy stunned financial markets and had a tangible impact on trade. Further, the recent and unexpected changes in Greece’s government are challenging the way governments are supported with loans and subsidies.
Internally, the declining trend in Employee Viewpoint Survey (EVS) scores suggests that each agency may need to reexamine the way in which it defines and manages its culture. Questions from EVS results regarding culture flow include:
- Do values exist and are they real, visible, and connected to agency mission?
- Does the current culture foster openness and contribution to decision making such that the workforce feels engaged with a vested and accountable interest?
- Are leaders sufficiently prepared to lead others?
If agencies are to drive new policies and practices into their operations to satisfy necessary changes related to the above circumstances and deliver the highest degree of value to constituencies, a culture change initiative might be required to support new practices, processes, and policies.
What is involved in changing organizational culture?
A deliberate culture change process should follow three critical steps.
- Awareness—an agency must communicate the change and establish the reason for change. In this regard, agency leadership must clearly and deliberately address the question why. Once the workforce understands the need for change, there is a greater likelihood that the workforce will accept the need for change. Not everyone will embrace and agree to the change, but awareness does help in the move to acceptance.
- Informing and Training—to move the organization from awareness and acceptance to the desired state of buy-in and participation, senior leadership must message the specifics behind the why. The agency must discuss more than just what has prompted the change. It is also important to establish what consequences exist if the change does not happen. Moreover, with a future desired state established, leaders need to be trained in leading others through training, building trust for change, and maintaining levels of customer service.
- Measures, Milestones, and Structure—what gets measured and discussed will get done. As with any project, a change initiative should have specific success criteria, supporting metrics, and a schedule for tangible indications of change. Additionally, an organizational structure should be established to manage the change effort. This structure could take the form of an executive steering committee, a task force comprising individual contributors, midlevel managers, and senior leadership, or a program management office (PMO).
To succeed in a changing world, organizations need to periodically evaluate the external and internal environment with an eye toward trends or conditions that warrant adjustments in practice. Culture can hinder progress—or, with proper foresight and training, it can help smooth the way toward change.
When we think about the mandates, budgets, and activities around developing leaders, we often forget to take into account an important aspect of the environment in which leaders lead—the culture of the organization. Culture can exist at various levels; for example: the overall federal government, an agency, or a branch. Wherever culture resides it must be accounted for, and integrated within, a leadership development program.
Identification and Integration
If cultural norms are to be taught to new members as basic assumptions, it is essential that a leadership development program incorporate methods for teaching these rules.
Leaders must be able to convey both explicit and implied rules and to reinforce desired behaviors to their teams. They also must know how to address and redirect unacceptable behaviors.
The first step toward accomplishing this goal is the identification of organizational values and assumptions. Values are a major underpinning of culture and define an organization’s rules of behavior. Values determine how members represent the organization to themselves and others. Basic assumptions are derived from lessons learned by the group as it solves problems. Both values and assumptions must be identified before they can be taught to new members as the expected way to perceive, think, and feel.
Manager Behavior and Culture
Once values and assumptions are identified, ongoing leadership development needs to provide models of useful day-to-day leadership behaviors.
At least three areas should be addressed.
- Communication style. This is critical to building and sustaining a desired culture because the way in which a manager communicates sends signals about how to engage with others. In other words, what type of communication is acceptable—top-down only; consultative; peer-to-peer advising; bottom-up feedback?
- Relationship style. This is how leaders interact with peers and direct reports. For instance, are relationships predominately adversarial, competitive, and distrustful, or supportive and collegial?
- Decision making style. Leaders need to be equipped with appropriate decision making practices that will contribute to the successful completion of tasks in support of agency mission. Employees need to understand both formal and informal approval processes.
But don’t stop there—consider other ways in which model behavior can be identified, reinforced, and publicized. Make sure actions and strategies are aligned to other key elements of the culture. For example, don’t overlook visually recognizable organization artifacts that should be taken into consideration. Architecture, furniture, and dress code provide tangible signs of behavior norms and parameters. Leaders need to be aware and use artifacts to support processes and systems that drive desired behaviors.
Future Perspectives on Culture
Does the federal government have a culture? Absolutely—there are written as well as unwritten rules about how things get done. Both need to be addressed in the development of leaders. In future posts we will explore how culture impacts agency performance and culture change.
The Ken Blanchard Companies specializes in leadership development and the connection to building healthy, desirable cultures. For more information on Blanchard’s leadership development and culture building solutions—specifically in a government setting—explore the culture section of Blanchard’s website.
These three kitchen items might not appear to have much to do with employee engagement. However, as we exit 2014 and enter another year of opportunity and challenge on the employee engagement front, these items are very central to the current debate and necessity to proactively address and improve Employee Viewpoint Survey (EVS) engagement scores.
Specifically, a December 23, 2014 GAO decision (File: B-326021) overturned an arbitrator’s decision to honor a memorandum of understanding enabling the National Weather Service to provide disposable plates, cups, and cutlery for employees. An arbitrator issued an opinion on December 19, 2013 supporting the purchase of these items as they could help Commerce maintain a healthy work environment and employee sickness could be an inconvenience to the agency. Further, the arbitrator noted that employees might spend less time away from their work stations if they were provided disposable items rather than having to wash non-disposable items in break rooms.
Seems like a reasonable decision and one that promotes engagement in addition to a healthy and productive work environment.
On the other hand, the National Weather Service’s acting chief financial officer directed management to stop purchasing the disposable items because it is illegal to use appropriated funds to purchase items for the personal convenience, comfort, or protection of employees. This directive was based on a 1924 decision of the Comptroller General, issued during the Calvin Coolidge Administration.
The GAO decision banning these purchases relies on statute stipulating that any such purchase has to advance the agency mission and that the benefit accruing to the agency has to clearly outweigh the ancillary benefit to the employee.
An appeal requiring the expenditure of additional taxpayer funds will now follow the GAO decision.
Is engagement related to agency mission?
This scenario clearly illustrates the debate surrounding the focus on employee engagement and how enhanced engagement supports desired agency outcomes. Sure, the disposable kitchen items were purchased as part of an H1N1 flu preparedness plan of action. However, in the spirit of the time-tested Hawthorne studies conducted at Western Electric, one could fashion an argument that the cutlery and cups are a negligible expense that does support the agency mission by “putting a spring in the step” of employees. That is, when attention is provided to employees, there is empirical evidence that productivity increases. Consequently, whether or not the disposable items support flu prevention, there is a dimension of improving engagement and consequently agency mission.
Looking at this issue in another way, the question has to be asked: what does the disposable item intervention cost on a per employee basis? The equation looks like this: (Walmart cost of disposable forks, knives, plates, and hot/cold cups [$598.30 for a one time supply of 5,000 units per item]) / 5,000 (# of National Weather Service employees) = $.12 (12 cents) per employee. How many other engagement interventions can be acquired for an investment of a few cents per employee? In fact, the arbitration, GAO review, and appeal will cost more than the one-time cost of these items.
Three fundamental issues
- Should the acting CFO have relied on a 1924 decision to support the directive?
- When will engagement be unequivocally understood and recognized as fundamentally central to achieving world class public service and improved EVS results?
- When will leaders be fully trained in leadership practices and held accountable for facilitating decisions that support engagement (particularly when the costs are so negligible)?
There is a reason why the current Administration has a People & Culture initiative. It’s simple: nothing gets done without people. Therefore, a motivated and engaged workforce is central to agency mission and provides high levels of service to the taxpayer. Whether or not the GAO decision is fundamentally sound (which we will find out upon appeal), there must be a hard look at the state of human capital strategy if this decision is representative of what is occurring inside our federal agencies. Given the state of EVS trends and recent results, we should not be reading about decisions banning the purchase of cutlery; rather, investments in the public sector workforce.
In fact, according to OPM data, from 2011 to 2013 total federal government retirements increased by 40 percent.
As today’s GS 7, 8 and 9s move toward 10, 11 and 12s and beyond, there must be an identification of the talent pipeline—those high potential individuals with the skills, capabilities, and desire to take on more responsibility.
A talent pipeline is essential because:
- A feeder pool to GS 10 through SES positions needs to be established to determine the set of people to develop. With constraints of time and budget, investments must be made in an actionable set of individuals.
- Once the pipeline is identified, there is retentive value in sharing that one is included in the planning of future leadership roles. Of course, there are no guarantees; however, when aware of future potential and the investment in development, there is a greater likelihood of retention with the government and enhanced engagement.
- Further, the pipeline should and can be stratified to understand where critical talent exists. Critical talent consists of those individuals who can perform and contribute in more than one way. For example, critical talent should be able to work across multiple agencies and in a variety of roles or functions. Their value and contributions represent horizontal possibilities rather than vertical limitations.
How to invest in future leaders?
- Identification: Chief human capital officers would organize a government-wide effort to establish criteria for high potential candidates. With the identification of common criteria, a framework for evaluation would be developed by chief learning officers. The evaluation framework would consist of common tools, processes, and templates to evaluate, nominate, and build an inventory of candidates to consider. The final selection of pipeline candidates would occur in a discussion among senior agency leadership (a small group who ensures confidentiality and maximum opportunity for healthy debate). The final product would be a targeted and manageable list of individuals that would become part of a high potential watch list. This exercise would be repeated once every two years to ensure the vitality of the process and identify additional future leaders. It would be critical to conduct a semi-annual review of progress.
- Development: Given the 70/20/10 approach to development, several low cost, highly effective techniques are available for investing in the development of high potential talent. For instance, experiential development can consist of job rotations: challenging assignments monitored by a mentor and assigned reading with follow-up discussion groups. Moreover, in the spirit of public service, participation with and contributions to community and civic organizations can focus on and improve teamwork and presentation skills. In addition, we should not forget about the core, basic, and critical leadership skills that can only be acquired in the classroom. It is critical for high potential future leaders to learn and work with a common leadership language. Because these individuals will likely rotate throughout government, they should use a common leadership language and framework to ensure consistency among agencies. It is also helpful to refer and relate back to a common framework when these future leaders meet as a group to discuss the current and future state of the government.
- Self Awareness: Any development needs to be accompanied by a focus on self awareness. Self awareness is of utmost importance for future leaders—it is the critical ingredient to ensuring blind spots are identified and avoided. In this context, blind spots result in a lack of appreciation for conflict, organization distraction, the political process, and ineffective communication. For instance, 360-degree feedback is an excellent tool to help individuals improve their awareness of how others perceive and react to them.
Of course, talent pipelines and succession planning take time and some level of investment. It is always easy to ignore this initiative given lack of time, budget constraints, or time away from the job. The question is not: Should we engage in identifying and developing our future leaders? The question is: What happens if we avoid this critical step toward continuing our progress as a leader among nations?