Now that the White House has declared its intention to improve employee engagement throughout the Federal workforce, it’s a safe bet that we’ll be hearing that term a lot more in the next few years. And it’s an even safer bet that responsibility for this initiative will be tasked out to the human resources offices in most agencies.
While our excellent colleagues in HR do have a very important role to play in this undertaking, their ability to improve employee engagement is indirect. HR has a vital role in ensuring that leadership potential is a key factor in hiring decisions for all supervisory positions. They guide us through the toughest parts of the performance management process. In some organizations they help us get feedback from our direct reports in the form of surveys or 360s. And they can help arrange appropriate training, as needed. They do a lot, and it’s really important.
At the end of the day, however, employee engagement is driven by the climate created by each and every supervisor at the work unit level. It is all about the real world practice of leadership. The practice of leadership only improves as supervisors 1) choose to lead, and 2) do the hard work required to learn to lead. And that only happens one person at a time.
The good news is that every one of us, as Federal managers, has the ability to improve employee engagement now. We don’t have to wait for the White House or HR to tell us to do it. We just need to learn to create the right work climate for our teams—and keep improving our own skills as leaders.
What IS Employee Engagement, Anyway?
The term “employee engagement was coined in the early 1990s and later popularized by the Gallup Organization with the book First Break All the Rules…. Employees who are engaged are those who are highly committed to their work and apply their discretionary energy to getting the job done in the best possible way. In short, they put their heart into their work. After conducting and analyzing hundreds of thousands of workplace surveys, Gallup identified 12 key survey questions (the “Q12”) that demonstrated an especially high correlation between good scores and desirable organizational outcomes (e.g. high retention rates and profitability).
According to Gallup, only about 29 percent of U.S. workers are engaged.
Employee engagement is essentially another term for intrinsic motivation. Intrinsically motivated employees show initiative, take pride in their work, and look for opportunities to make a difference. Basically, they put their heart into their work. In fact, many of the factors identified by Gallup’s research fit quite nicely with the drivers of intrinsic motivation identified by authors Daniel Pink and Kenneth Thomas. The Gallup model adds a dose of effective performance management for good measure.
In his classic book Intrinsic Motivation at Work: Building Energy and Commitment, Kenneth W. Thomas identifies four drivers of intrinsic motivation: Choice (i.e. empowerment), Competence, Progress, and Meaningful Work. Daniel Pink’s inspiring book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us identifies similar drivers of intrinsic motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.
How Can I Get Some of That for My Team?
Employee engagement (or intrinsic motivation) doesn’t really need to cost much, if anything. It just requires that supervisors:
- Give people ownership over their work–and how they do it–to the extent possible.
- Invest in developing the capacity of their people to help them increase their sense of competence/mastery. (Hint: This doesn’t just mean training; most real learning comes in the process of getting the job done.)
- Connect their employees to a larger sense of purpose (the public sector has a huge comparative advantage on this one).
There are, of course, many other elements of leadership that are important to your effectiveness, such as modeling integrity, learning humility, communicating effectively, and many other factors that have been written about extensively. But the formula above is a great starting point for an effective leadership strategy because when your employees are internally motivated and they know their jobs well things tend to go really well.