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The First Word in Employee Engagement


Have you heard the one about the government agency? A new director came in and decided to improve employee engagement. The director sat down with the rest of executive management and over the course of a few months came up with a great plan for engaging the employees in the work of the agency. During that time, teaser announcements were made to employees to get them excited. The director met with agency stakeholders to tell them the good news of the employee engagement plan and how it would change the way this agency interacted with community partners. A mandatory kickoff meeting for employees was scheduled over the lunch hour so that it wouldn’t interfere with their work. The director was surprised and disappointed at the lukewarm reception from employees. A few months after implementation when nothing had changed, the engagement plan fizzled out and died.

If you have been around in government service for a little while, this story is yours as well as mine. Executive leadership puts months of work into an employee engagement plan, and then are disappointed when all of their hard work isn’t appreciated and employees are not better engaged. For those of us not in executive leadership, we wonder how on earth they can keep making the same fundamental mistake. How can they not see that the key to employee engagement is involving the employee? Colleagues, here is the truth of the situation. The first word in employee engagement is employee. We are the ones that should be improving employee engagement. For most people, executive leadership has little to do with the day-to-day operations of agencies and the work that people do. Whether or not we are management service in our agency, we are still leaders. It is up to us to change the dynamic that causes our coworkers and ourselves to become disengaged.

It is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking it’s more efficient to do things ourself rather than involving others. Particularly if we work at a position in which we are primarily independent and set our own process and priorities, bringing others into our circle can be far down the list. The simple truth of employee engagement is that people become more engaged in the work and mission of the agency when they have an active role in making decisions around how work is done and in continuous improvement. Here are some ways we can impact engagement in our areas.

  • Do less reporting out and do more asking of questions. If the normal style of your team is for individuals to brief others, turn things around and ask questions. Do you see anything we could have done differently? Does anybody have a contact at this partner agency? How can we strategically approach X for their help?
  • Try job shadowing or cross training. Once we have a better understanding of how things go in other areas, we have opportunities to improve how we work together. Invite colleagues from other teams to spend part of a day with you.
  • Along with job shadowing in general, try to get an opportunity to see how the work of your agency actually impacts the people you serve. Getting down to the field level can be powerfully energizing when you can actually see the ways your agency can change people’s lives. You are guaranteed to come back with a whole new understanding of how the contracts you write or the systems you develop have a real and immediate impact on the people you serve.
  • Be more transparent. Set the example by sharing when you are getting stuck as well as when things are going well. Asking for help will engage others in your work.

When we take on ownership of employee engagement, it helps ourselves as well as our colleagues to feel more involved and less burnt out. What are your thoughts on improving engagement? Comment below!

Brenda Dennis is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Laura Free

Thank you for putting employees back into the discussion on employee engagement. Too much discussion around action plans, events, etc. People can take some ownership of their engagement–or at least of tackling some of the challenges they see! Great article.


Great piece. would like to add one perspective. While employee is the first part of employee engagement, when leadership is a self-serving micromanagement machine, the “employees” have been removed from the equation all together and thus lose all engagement in the agency. Time for leadership to stay out of day-to-day affairs which usually they have no skill set or experience to get involved with. At my agency, all we are doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as “leaders” dictate to us how to do our jobs. One benefit, employee-to-employee morale and welfare has increased. We now have betting pools on the what the next embarassing act of or cliches will be used by the dictators and their minions. We also have bonus grand prizes if we can name the Dilbert script the day’s follies follow.

So far in the term of our new leader, the employee engagement group has decided it needs to define what engagement is and then teach us employees what engagement means and how our leadership has done all these wonderful things to get us engaged and motivated.


I think it depends on the individual agency. Some employees need to see upper management involved and planning. It is not morale-boosting when employee engagement is delegated to employees. When my peers are in charge of Wellness or one or two middle managers are involved, it seems like employee engagement is just another task to be micro-managed. When employee engagement attempts by my peers are micromanaged such as “not approved” or placed as the last item on the agenda, it is very apparent how much of a priority employee engagement is to executive level leadership.