What Should Your Agency Head do to Improve Engagement/Morale?

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This topic contains 15 replies, has 8 voices, and was last updated by  Mark Hammer 5 years, 3 months ago.

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  • #181143

    Terrence Hill

    As you know, the Partnership for Public Service released it annual list of Best Places to Work in the Federal Government. Again this year, many of us are experiencing agencies with lower morale/engagement. Yet, management seems powerless to reverse course and improve morale/engagement.

    If you were the head of an agency, what is the first thing that you would do to improve morale/engagement in your agency?

    I’ll start this discussion off by recommending that if leaders want to know what needs to be done, they need to ask employees. Follow the example of virtually everyone by asking for ideas using an “ideation” system or social network. Get the discussion going! Find out what motivates employees to join or stay in your agency. Then DO IT!

  • #181173

    Mark Hammer

    Works the other way, Terry.

    There is a received wisdom – fostered by the consultancy trade – that somehow managers can create engagement or morale. They don’t and can’t.

    Generally speaking, we hire people for their merit, but also because they are motivated and fired up for the job. We tend to forget that they bring their engagement with them. What happens over time is that things get in the way of that motivation, and undermine the employee’s sense that their efforts are justified. The obstacles are not necessarily the manager’s “fault”, but the manager is the one with the authority to do something about them, or at least the authority to request someone with more authority to try and address it.

    So, rather than finding out what motivates employees, find out what de-motivates them, and remove that obstacle. People appreciate an effective champion. Be that champion.

  • #181171

    AJ Malik

    According to the Best Places to Work ranking, quality of leadership is the most important issue affecting government employee satisfaction, followed by the connection between employees’ skills and their agency’s mission. The third most important consideration is pay, which wasn’t ranked as highly before 2010 and the imposition of a federal pay freeze. And retaining and recruiting talented employees is becoming a more worrisome problem for the government. During the shutdown, federal workers said that they were looking for jobs in the private sector because of the uncertainty surrounding their government positions. Most fundamentally because the workforce that we have in government is a mission-oriented workforce. They want to do their jobs. They’re there because they want to make a difference for the public. The most damaging thing you can do for someone who’s mission-oriented is tie their hands behind their back and say, ‘You can’t help.'”

  • #181169

    Terrence Hill

    Good point Mark! Leaders should assess what motivates employees and try to remove barriers to engagement that don’t allow them to use their strengths. I can think of about a dozen or so common demotivators – micromanagement, lack of communication/feedback, outdated processes, etc.

  • #181167

    Terrence Hill

    Sometimes I think that management pulls a little “bait and switch” with new employees – luring them in based on an exciting, engaging mission, then giving employees mundane or meaningless tasks. Fair compensation and benefits are important, but most of us are not here for the money. We want to make a difference! Leadership must do everything they can to fulfill their promise of engaging employees in meaningful work.

  • #181165

    Tim Howell

    I agree with Mark because I do not think the majority of people join an organization with the intentions of not liking it.

    It starts with the interview process. Interviews for government jobs are often mundane and do not often truly take into account the culture and personality of the organization and applicant. But even if you have the best candidate who is a perfect fit, it is important to continually monitor their drive.

    We are always looking for the best leadership technique and advice. It will save most of us a lot of time to just realize that the technique is not the solution. There are as many leadership techniques as there are good leaders. What matters is consistency and ethics. It has been said a million times, but I think it boils down to communication. You have to develop relationships with your people and care about them. Help them set goals, develop and have something to strive for.

    Oh, and don’t put the smartest person in management roles. Put the most liked 😉

  • #181163

    David B. Grinberg

    The agency head should reach out to employees, supervisors and managers by personalizing themselves and being more social. This may sound a bit trivial but I believe it does help to boost employee morale and engagement. Here’s how:

    1) Make periodic unannounced visits to program offices, saying hello to staff, asking about their work and how it advances the agency’s mission, etc. (make small talk).

    2) Hold bi-weekly roundtable discussions with rank-and-file staff in an open dialogue where ANY issue may be raised.

    3) Conduct video conferences with field offices nationwide AND make sure to personally visit those offices when in those states for official business. Use social media platforms like Google Hangouts, if available, to interface with field staff.

    And one unrelated to the above: all managers need to create a positive and productive work environment, which includes advancing telework and work-life flexibility, as well as fostering an EEO-friendly office.

  • #181161

    Peter Sperry

    There was a very interesting article in the Harvard Business Review by a medium sized corporate owner whose company consistently earned rave reviews for it’s motivated staff, all of whom enjoyed their work, respected the boss and each other, and consistently produced superior results. The owner had taken a broken, dispirited, unmotivated group of over 1500 employees and turned them into a tight, fun loving team of 1200 employees in 18 months. His secret? He identified and fired 300 losers who were pulling down everyone else.

    Not something very many government leaders can pull off.

  • #181159

    Mark Hammer

    Public services generally have very meticulous hiring practices. While I would certainly make no claims that every hire is “gold, Jerry, GOLD!”, the private sector often relies on firing for its quality control, rather than attempting to institute better quality control at the point of intake. So when a CEO “turns around” a company by canning 20% of their staff, my first question is “What kind of farkakteh recruitment and hiring practices was this company using in the first place that they should have that much dead wood?”. A twenty percent figure suggests the problem lay not in the employees, but in the company’s practices.

    We’ve heard our own Treasury Board president pontificate about the big gap between the private and public sector in dismissal percentages, and suggest perhaps something is amiss in government if we don’t fire that many employees, as if somehow the private sector was doing something right by hiring all those people who simply weren’t up to snuff. Remember, all these private-sector companies are reknowned for having things like 72hr turnaround times for hiring, compared to several months for government. Umm, maybe that haste makes a little bit of waste?

    Nope, I would suggest that one of the first things the head of an agency can do to at least maintain morale is stop accepting all of this why-can’t-we-be-more-like-the-private-sector nonsense, and get a firm grasp on how their agency actually functions best, including the unique needs of the various branches/units, rather than blindly importing whatever strategy they read about in the airport lounge and using it like a blunt instrument. Every agency certainly shares some things in common with every other organization, but it also has some unique attributes that need to be recognized, respected, and adapted to.

  • #181157

    Earl Rice

    If I was Secretary of……. (which would probably mean I was a well-connected Political appointee, with little experience doing whatever the Agency is doing, but lots of connections in the Whitehouse and stepped in party agenda’s and fund raising).

    1. Order an immediate review of all functions the Agency is performing and eliminate everything and I mean everything that doesn’t directly relate to the mission. If it isn’t is directly related to the results of the Agencies mandate, cut it. I would put the most ruthless outside people I could find to do this. One’s that don’t care about pet projects, nice to have, warm and fuzzy, nor tertiary programs. The employees from the programs that were cut would be re-assigned to high priority (and pay off) programs, ergo those that directly relate to the functions of the Agency.

    2. I would order an immediate review of all regulations, and elimination of bureaucracy any and every where found. Eliminate duplication and layers. I would also put the most cut throat people I could find to do this. With the initial goal of eliminating 50% of the regulations and consolidating the rest. And, in the future, if the new regulations are violated, I would NOT come up with new regulation to stop that behavior, but severely punish, to include removal of, those that violated the regulations (there would be no allowing to quietly retire…there would be a 75 Action). There would be very little “progressive discipline on this one”. And, if there was even the slightest hint of retaliation on any employee(s), the retaliator’s next employer would have them asking “would you like to supersize that order”. I would also look at eliminating positions at the Headquarters itself, and transferring them to the field. Streamline, Streamline, Streamline.

    3. I would immediately order a review of all reports, with the requirement to eliminate 50% of them, and the goal to eliminate 75% of them. A report will be pulled from a database without requiring consolidations by lower elements, end of statement. And, there would be no manipulation of the databases. If it isn’t in the databases of record, then it doesn’t exist. I would also eliminate duplications in systems (there is way to much of this in all Agencies). There would be data bases of records, and if it isn’t in them, then it doesn’t exist.

    4. I would put a requirement on Agency employees graded GS 11 through GS 15 to serve at least 3 or 4 years in the field. If you haven’t spent time in the field, then you will be found a new position in the field (outside the Greater DC Baltimore Area) to serve for 3 or 4 years before coming back (there would be full relocations of course). Some won’t like it, but after 10 years I would have a more rounded agency and break up the career bureaucratic headquarters mindset in DC (ergo, those that have only served at the Headquarters for their entire career would get experience in the field and vice versa). This way the people in DC would have a feel for what their actions in DC do to the people in the field and vice versa. To many people on Govloop forget that there is a lot more to their Agency that the Government District of DC or across the river in Alexandria.

    5. As a cost saving measure, I would eliminate as many contractors as possible. If the job can be performed by a Government Employee, then it will be performed by a Government employee. Only as a last resort would I result to contractors. If the project or task is for more than a year, it would be filled by a Government Employee.

  • #181155

    Earl Rice


    I can only say you hit the nail right on the head with this one. So many people forget that we are the Government, not some for profit entity where the CEO’s one and major goal is to soak as much profit out of the company as fast as they can, get their high salary and bonuses, and then put on that “golden parachute” and jump to the next company before the first one goes bankrupt, only to do the same thing, wreck the new in the process, and then jump again.

  • #181153

    Peter Sperry

    I will need to go back and find the article to confirm the numbers but the point was that some employees just cannot be motivated. They seek employment almost purely for the paycheck, find the cloud in every silver lining, give no more than the absolute minimum required to keep their jobs and pull down the moral of everyone around them. A good leader makes every REASONABLE effort to turn them around; but does not allow a small group of malcontents to destroy the entire team. There comes a time when a leader has to insist employees either support the team or leave it. This is much easier in the private sector than in government.

    I have to add that public sector hiring must be very different in Canada than the US. I have been on the interview team through two separate efforts to hire a new budget analyst. The process has left me with a very poor opinion of the entire so called Merit Selection Process which seems deliberately biased toward mediocrity. Everything about it from drafting the position description to recruiting to screening applications to the restrictions on how we could conduct the interview focused much more on CYA than on filling the vacancy with a high quality new employee. If the candidate we finally selected accepts our offer, we will have succeeded in spite of, not because of, the required HR process.

  • #181151

    Earl Rice

    There’s more to it than just the hiring processes. And, there is a lot of committee actions as a CYA. It’s hard to file an EEO complaint against a committee/board (I guess you have never had that). But, let’s look at this, there is the HR person making sure the applicants sent over on the list are qualified (this is a qualified, not a motivated decision). Then a group of SME’s will determine which qualified applicants should be interviewed (once again qualified not motivated). From there, there are the interview panels, and then the final decision based upon the interview results as to who is hired (part qualified and part motivated). Now, the part that most people forget. In the US Federal Civil Service, there is a 1 year probationary period (some systems have a 2 year) where a new government employee can be released from service without cause, this is definitely a motivation evaluation period. This is the period where those “that just can’t be motivated” as you call it, should be eliminated. If they aren’t, then management (not HR) is the problem here. Even in the private sector, if 20% of the employees that are holding everyone down are suddenly fired, I ask how on earth did management allow 20% sub-standard workers to accumulate and how bad the leaders are to allow such a sad state of affairs to occur? Obviously there is a management problem selecting and/or allowing 20% dead wood. The only thing that I can fathom on this is very poor leadership (unless the 20% dismissed are the poor leaders). I know of numerous instances, where people come in highly motivated, full of truly great ideas, and get continually slammed by poor leadership. It doesn’t take many instances of getting slammed to prove Pavlov’s theories in relationship to pain avoidance (and the root cause of the blossoming of mediocrity as a means of survival). And, word gets around of who to work for, and who not to. And, those that are slammed will find a job someplace else before the year is out anyway. I support a group that I know will lose 20% of their employees annually, and it isn’t because of the poor quality of the employees, but rather the poor quality of first level and mid-level management. Also, just because an employee has mercenary tendencies, doesn’t mean they are bad employees. Nothing wrong with mercenaries. Most have the idea of get in, get the job done, and then move on. All you need to do is realize that is their motivation, and feed it.

  • #181149

    Terrence Hill

    All good points Earl! I struggled to disagree with you on some points, but I have to admit that you make some great points. Each agency should carefully consider your points. Unfortunately for us, those well-connected political appointees are not GovLoop members (that I know of), so they will probably never see your posting.

  • #181147

    Mark Hammer

    Interesting points and counter-points. I’ll simply add:

    1) Hard to know how to evaluate/assess for “loyalty” pre-hire; particularly since individual and generational notions of what constitutes enough time in position to equate with loyalty can vary. certainly those in the management track have a decidedly shorter time-arc/tenure in mind than the rest of us. One person’s “mercenary” qualities is another’s feeder group for management.

    2) Speaking as a psychologist, the idea that someone “simply can’t be motivated” makes as much sense as “you only use 10% of your brain”. For me, the question is whether that individual has been appropriately placed and tasked, so as to harness their motivation. And that is entirely separate from whether the individual is demonstrably and suitably qualified. It is quite possible for someone to be qualified yet have no interest in the tasks assigned to them. Everybody wants/needs a paycheck, but that is no guarantee the things they have to do for it will elicit anything more than work to rule.

    3) I echo Earl’s comments that if one is applying merit criteria, and still ending up with people who are underperforming, then there is something amiss with the HR system. Perhaps not amiss with the professionalism of those in HR, but rather with the criteria and requirements being applied. That isn’t always the hiring manager’s or HR advisor’s fault. It can sometimes result from programs being unexpectedly sunsetted or organizations being restructured in ways that result in different sorts of duties being assigned to people who are really more appropriately placed elsewhere.

    4) As for “malcontents”, that is never the sort of thing that comes out of nowhere. If a manager has no idea whatsoever that trouble is brewing with employees X and/or Y, or has some idea but crosses their fingers and hopes it will take care of itself, then the issue is not those employees alone. “Poor performers” are either mishired in the first place, or else meticulously created, brick by brick. They just don’t spontaneously erupt. Presuming they have somehow tricked their way into the organization and waited for the right moment to unpack their tent is just shifting the blame.

    5) The original question asked about improving engagement/morale. I’ve used the phrase “justified effort” on several occasions. I would agree with Peter and others wholeheartedly that morale is sustained, and maybe even enhanced, by signs and omens to staff that values-directed effort, and attention to supporting the mandate, matters. I suppose, in some respects, taking action with those who would seem to stand in the way of fulfilling the mandate is a way of demonstrating to staff that their efforts in support of the mandate is appreciated and worthwhile. Indeed, there can possibly be a greater morale-boosting effect of getting rid of a senior manager viewed by many as a burden to the organization, than in getting rid of hundreds of front-line “poor performers”. But certainly shooting the sled dogs that aren’t pulling hard enough is not the best source of motivation, nor a complete one. It takes a helluva lot more than that.

  • #181145

    Victoria A. Palmer

    Fantastic, hard-core suggestions! I could not agree more. As a 20+ years federal employee, I have to agree that the problem with government is the people–too many get too comfortable, don’t move around, don’t challenge the status quo, don’t engage in original thinking, etc., which results in throwing more money and creating new programs/policy/staffs, etc. when faced when a problem, instead of creatively thinking through to a sustainable solution. And I am so tired of always having the non-performers on staff that management does not deal with. Government can be run more like business, and it starts with ruthlessly evaluating what we are doing, whether what we are doing supports our mission, and evaluating the ROI for all our efforts. If something doesn’t make the cut, it should get cut, not swept under the rug. As a federal employee and as a taxpayer, I am tired of seeing the waste and inefficiency around me. I think your recommendations are a great blueprint to start with… unfortunately, few supervisors, managers, or leaders would have the guts to implement any of this. (And BTW, my own federal career has included working in 6 job series in multiple agencies in 2 Departments, at local, regional and headquarters levels Stateside and overseas, and included deliberate moves out of HQ to get ‘into the field’. Change is good. Unfortunately it is not the norm for many government employees, which only makes innovation all the more challenging.)

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