Maximizing Employee Engagement in the Public Sector

No matter what type of setting you work in, being a manager can be pretty demanding. However, leading others in the public sector offers a different set of challenges than traditional business environments. Since employee engagement is critical to organizational outcomes, it’s important for public sector managers to understand how to help their employees achieve it. Getting there involves gaining insight into the unique characteristics of the workforce you’re leading.

Public Sector Challenges

One significant difference for government managers relates to the environments in which they operate. In a 1997 article in Harvard Business Review, Joseph L. Bower, a Donald Kirk David Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, lists four unique challenges that public managers face. Bower says they frequently must:

  • Accept goals that are set by organizations other than their own.
  • Operate within structures designed by groups other than their own.
  • Work with people whose careers are in many respects outside management’s control.
  • Accomplish their goals in less time than is allowed corporate managers.

Although Bower penned his insights nearly 20 years ago, they still apply to the factors that leaders in the public sector face today. Such factors can make it more difficult for managers to both understand the needs of their employees and use this knowledge to motivate them. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to impact both.

Understanding What Employees Need

According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace, 70 percent of employees lack engagement on some level—a trend that’s estimated to cost the United States $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity per year. That’s one reason that a number of experts are trying to understand how to better engage employees. One such expert is Kimberly Schaufenbuel, program director at UNC Executive Development. Her work was recently summarized by online executive MBA program [email protected]

In the article, [email protected] outlines Schaufenbuel’s view on how to better understand the reasoning behind employee’ actions, and then use those results to help motivate them. To do it, she says knowing the behavioral drivers that influence human behavior is key. They are:

  • The drive to acquire
  • The drive to defend
  • The drive to bond
  • The drive to learn

Schaufenbuel says that since the drives impact each other, it’s important to view them holistically to optimize their use: “When HR and talent managers understand what drives a person’s behavior in this context, they can design systems, policies, procedures, and practices that will appeal to each driver.”

Maximizing Employee Engagement

Once you are armed with a greater understanding of what employees need, there are several steps you can take to better engage them—many of which are linked to your management style. The Gallup report State of the American Manager says that managers account for as much as 70 percent of the variance found in employee engagement scores, and notes that a “study of 7,272 U.S. adults revealed that one in two had left their job to get away from their manager to improve their overall life at some point in their career.” An additional study cited in the report revealed certain managerial behaviors that strongly influence employee engagement: those related to communication, performance management and individual strengths. As a result, Gallup says managers should take a few key steps to address them:

  • Make your communication matter—so your employees know how much you care about them, which provides an important context for motivating them to do their best. “Knowing their employees as people first, these managers accommodate their employees’ uniqueness while managing toward high performance.”
  • Be sure performance goals are clear—so everyone is on the same page and knows what to expect. “Engaged employees are more likely than their colleagues to say their managers help them set work priorities and performance goals.”
  • Focus on strengths more than weaknesses—an approach that gets better results. “A strengths-based culture is one in which employees learn their roles more quickly, produce more and significantly better work, stay with their company longer, and are more engaged.”

Engaged employees are typically more motivated, more satisfied with their work, and perform better as a result. However, there are many factors that influence the engagement dynamic—and some are within your realm of control. By understanding what your employees need and keeping these management principles in mind, you’ll better engage your team and experience improved outcomes as a result.

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