By Steve Kelman

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'Employee engagement' and agency performance

selected workers (nep0/Shutterstock.com)

The Office of Personnel Management began a campaign in 2010 to promote employee engagement as a way to improve government performance. That year, OPM took 15 questions from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey to create an “employee engagement index.” When scores on the index actually declined between 2010 and 2014, OPM doubled down by beginning to offer training and guidance about using the index to create a more-engaged workforce. This initiative survived the transition to the Trump administration – which is now asking agencies to identify their poorest performers and to take steps to improve scores -- always a good sign for the ability of government management efforts to make a contribution.

Although employee engagement may be seen as a psychological connection between an employee and their work, what OPM has actually tried to measure are various management practices seen as encouraging engagement. If you look at the questions that constitute the index, they refer to how good a work environment is created for employees.

There are questions about the employee’s supervisor: “My supervisor/team leader listens to what I have to say,” “My supervisor/team leader treats me with respect,” and “I have trust and confidence in my supervisor.” There are questions about leader behavior: “In my organization, leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce,” “Managers communicate the goals and priorities of the organization,” and “My organization’s leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity.” Finally, there are questions of how the organization uses the employee’s talents: “My talents are used well in the workplace,” “I know what is expected of me on the job,” and “I feel encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things.”

Looking at these questions, my reaction (and the reaction of the authors of the paper I am about to discuss) is that we should skip over OPM's “employee engagement” moniker and simply focus on what the questions ask -- which is how positive and encouraging managerial behavior toward employees is.

The bigger question is whether such positive and encouraging managerial behaviors actually improve an agency’s performance. After all, a practice might produce a warm glow of good employee feeling but not get people to do a better job.

new study by Taha Hameduddin and Sergio Fernandez, a PhD candidate and an associate professor at Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, just published in the Public Administration Review, actually gathers evidence about whether there is such a connection.

There are two problems with trying to establish a credible link between a management practice and organizational performance. One is that studies often use a measure of organizational performance as rated by an employee’s own subjective self-report (“How well does my organization perform?”), which tends inflate ratings. However, if the tendency to give inflated ratings is the same on average across respondents, the average self-reported performance will be too high, but the relationship between some managerial practice being investigated and self-reported performance will not change.

The second problem is more pervasive. Traditionally, research on this kind of topic has gathered information on both organizational performance and perceived empowerment from the reports of the same employees. This method is seriously flawed. When a respondent is rating both employee engagement (or good management) and organizational performance, they are likely -- if they like, as we can assume they do, good management practices -- to raise their ratings of organizational performance in line with their ratings of how their managers behave. So the type of employee who is an “easy” grader rating their manager will also be an easy grader rating their organization’s performance.

This inflates (or even creates) a link between the two that is just an artifact of differences among people in how easy or hard they grade. For many years, this problem was a bane of public administration research, and devastated its credibility with many scholars. In recent years, however, public administration researchers have finally taken a page from the book of management research at business schools, which takes care to survey different groups of sources when gathering information about the management practices being studied and the effects that may be produced. 

That’s what Hamduddin and Fernandez do in this paper. They gather information on management practices from employees – respondents to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey -- and information on agency performance from supervisors at the same agency as the respondent. (On agency performance, they ask supervisors to rate both “the overall quality of work done by your work unit” and how well their “agency is successful at accomplishing its mission.” The latter question is probably less subject to inflated ratings, since supervisors can be more objective about rating the organization’s overall performance, over which they have less control, than rating the work unit’s performance, over which they have more control.) As a result, their study produces results that are credible enough for me to report on here.

What do they find? Employee perceptions of the management behavior of senior organizational leaders is strongly related to supervisor perceptions of organizational effectiveness. Employee perceptions of the quality of supervision are related, though quite weakly, to work unit effectiveness. The employee-level variables of how the employee’s talents are used do not relate to better performance.

Whatever moniker we use to characterize what is being measured here – whether it be “employee engagement” or just good management -- managers do make a difference. Hopefully, this result can help motivate managers to understand, and act on, the importance of their efforts.

Posted by Steve Kelman on May 30, 2019 at 2:40 PM


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