Learning the art of employee engagement

Employee engagement is a straightforward way to get a satisfied and more productive workforce. And that is just one of the reasons why federal agencies should be integrating this concept into their missions.

A 2008 report submitted to Congress by the Merit Systems Protection Board established a link between employee engagement and agency outcomes. The board also found that engagement levels were undesirably low at agencies: One-third of federal employees were engaged, less than half were somewhat engaged, and 17.5 percent were disengaged.

For agencies struggling to retain their best and brightest in an era of dwindling budgets and the approaching wave of baby boomer retirements, low engagement levels could be a death knell. Recent estimates say that disengaged employees cost organizations $343 billion a year, including $65 billion of tax dollars lost to low productivity in the public sector alone.

“If managers don’t use every tool they have at their disposal to make sure their employees feel valued and rewarded for their contributions, they run the risk of losing employees in a literal sense, or more insidious, you risk losing them in a figurative sense — they’ll just turn off and quit going that extra mile,” said Ronald Sanders, a senior executive adviser and fellow at Booz Allen Hamilton.

Aside from lower quit rates and increased productivity, having an engaged workforce typically means higher employee morale. The core of engagement is about employees believing that they matter and their work is meaningful to their organization, said Elaine Pulakos, president of PDRI, a provider of talent management solutions.

“It is a no-brainer: If you’re engaged and someone is making you feel important, you feel like you’re doing something meaningful,” said Pulakos, who has a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology. “Just about anyone would say, ‘Yes, I can relate to this kind of concept’ and understand why it would be important.”

From a managerial perspective, the art of engagement means conveying a clear vision and giving employees a sense of how their work fits into the bigger picture.

“Making sure that employees understand the overarching mission of the organization and your strategy for achieving excellence is all part of it,” said Diane Denholm, vice president of consulting firm North Highland Co.

Indeed, employee engagement could be the most critical factor in successful execution of an agency’s mission, she said. And, conversely, disengaged employees can derail a strategy. “You can reach your mission much faster with engaged employees than disengaged employees,” said Denholm, who formerly worked at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Unleashing that discretionary energy

Engagement also entails innovation, creativity, commitment and going that extra step, said Sanders, whose 37-year federal career included senior positions at agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Office of Personnel Management.

“Engagement, to me, is much different than satisfaction,” he said. “Satisfaction gets you to work and keeps you on the job, but it doesn’t necessarily unleash that discretionary energy. Engagement is something more.”

Engagement could also be an indicator of how well first- and second-level managers are doing at ensuring that employees feel connected to the mission, their colleagues, their chain of command and the culture of the organization, Sanders said.

“Most important: Do they make employees feel valued, not just for showing up but for making that extra contribution?” he asked.

However, engagement doesn’t only fall to the manager; employees need to own some of that responsibility, too. If you don’t know what’s expected of you as an employee, “you should go find out,” Pulakos said.

But unless managers are receptive to the idea of an engaged workforce and tuned into building one, employees will have a hard time making that culture change alone.

“There’s a leadership crisis in government that’s well documented, and I think it all comes down to training our leadership workforce [in] how to engage employees,” Pulakos said. “Similar issues revolve around performance management. Engagement is just part of that. The same kind of work you do to build engagement you do as a leader to manage performance in an organization.”

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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