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Satisfied employees prove value

Good management has a role in making employees feel engaged and important, and evokes better performance

Any guesses on which agency has the largest number of employees who believe they are valued and that their work is important?

According to a new study from the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the winner is NASA, with 50 percent of its employees saying they feel highly engaged.

The Homeland Security Department is last on the list, with only 20 percent of its employees reporting the same sense of appreciation.

These findings come from a survey of more than 35,000 federal employees the board conducted in 2005. The MSPB just recently published the results under the title, “The Power of Federal Employee Engagement.” After NASA, the next four agencies with the highest degree of employee engagement are the State Department, Air Force, Army and Environmental Protection Agency.

And the remaining bottom- ranked five, just above DHS, are the Energy, Education and Transportation departments and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

The board defines employee engagement as a sense of pride in one’s work, a belief that one’s work has personal meaning, and a perception that the organization cares about the employee. The study measures a civil servant’s engagement through survey items such as, “The work I do is meaningful to me” and “I am treated with respect at work.” In all, the board found that about a third of feds are engaged and close to half feel somewhat engaged. Fewer than 20 percent felt that they were not engaged at all.

Most dramatically, the study finds relationships between high average levels of employee engagement and a number of performance results.

Compared with agencies with low average levels of employee engagement, those with higher levels had higher scores on the Office of Management and Budget’s agency results ratings and lower on average use of sick leave.

Unfortunately, the study includes no control for occupational mix because professionals are more likely to be highly engaged and use sick leave less. Therefore, leaders concerned with organizational performance should see efforts to increase levels of employee engagement as a tool they should be considering for improving the results the organization delivers.

If employee engagement matters for performance, what can managers do to increase it? One piece of advice the survey supports is to improve the quality of first-line supervision.

Among engaged employees, 87 percent agreed with the statement that their supervisor had good management skills, while among the unengaged, only 14 percent agreed — a dramatic difference. This finding adds to the accumulation of evidence on the importance of first-line supervision for organizational performance — a priority area for improvement in government management.

More speculatively, the report suggests that agencies should try to recruit people who already have a strong interest in the work they will be doing.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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