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Federal Coach: Closing the gap between managers and staff at your federal agency

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

The managers and staff of well-run federal agencies are usually on the same page, sharing a common vision and working in sync to carry out government’s policies and provide services to the American people.

But this alignment is sometimes missing, with the leadership and those doing the day-to-day work not seeing eye-to-eye and veering off in different directions.

Sometimes, supervisors may be unable or unwill­ing to properly acknowledge and share staff concerns with top leadership, or not fully understand the nature of the discontent. Agency executives also may be left unaware of what’s happening on the frontlines, issuing policies that risk failure because they aren’t fully informed of how the mission and work is being perceived by the employees. Agency leaders also may miss opportunities to improve the workplace if they are not aware of different challenges facing their staff.

Such situations can obviously lead to dysfunction, unhappiness and decreased employee engagement, resulting in poor performance and bad outcomes, results that no one wants.

If there is a glaring divide at your agency, you need to right the ship. Here are a few options for both senior leaders and frontline supervisors to consider:

Determine if there is a management/employee divide. Knowing whether or not you have a problem is clearly the first and most important step. In some cases, it may be quite obvious. In other instances, it may require use of employee surveys and various other methods of obtaining employee feedback. To start, I suggest looking at your agency’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government Staff/Manager Alignment Score that measures gaps between the views of managers and staff on a range of issues. You might also consider hosting periodic brown bag lunches to address your employee’s questions, and you might try managing by walking around and engaging employees to test the waters.

Articulate agency priorities. Too often, managers assume that employees know or understand the reasons why certain policies or approaches are being taken, when in fact they do not. Be sure to make clear through your verbal and written communications how programs and policies relate to the mission of your agency, and how the day-to-day work is part and parcel of accomplishing your goals. It is important for your employees to understand the big picture and how their work fits in.

Create an action plan to improve the workplace. Agencies across government have successfully in­cluded staff, managers, leaders and union represen­tatives in the action planning process through focus groups, trainings and workshops to solicit ideas and garner buy-in. Employees generally are committed to their jobs and want to succeed, and it is important for their voices to be heard and that they are given a sense of ownership. This will inevitably lead to better performance.

Share employee concerns with agency leaders. Your top leaders may not have the same opportunities to gain insight into the daily challenges that employ­ees at your agency face, but as a manager you are uniquely positioned to receive and share important informa­tion on what’s happening at the frontlines. Sharing new employee information regu­larly is a critical part of getting your entire agency onto the same page.

For additional ideas on how to start closing gaps between managers and staff at your agency, I suggest reading a new agency guide by my organization and the IBM Center for The Business of Government, Best Places to Work in the Federal Government Staff/Manager Alignment Scores . Be sure to check out the step-by-step instructions on using those scores to guide improvement.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Jun 28, 2011 at 12:12 PM

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