What Your Agency Can Learn from NASA

NASA has done it again. For the third consecutive year, it ranked highest among large federal agencies for its employee satisfaction, according to the 2014 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey.

The big question is, of course, how NASA continues to do it. This is especially puzzling when overall federal employee satisfaction is at its lowest since the rankings launched in 2003. So how does NASA keep improving its scores, even as other agencies struggle to maintain current satisfaction ratings?

Some might think the answer is obvious. Who wouldn’t be happy being an astronaut or building a rover that literally flies through space to live on Mars? Fair point. But according to the survey, the lofty mission of NASA is only one reason that employees love coming to work each day.

That’s good news, because it means there are real benefits of working at NASA that could be applied to other agencies. Below, we highlight five lessons from NASA that can help make your employees happier:

1. Foster great leaders. No matter what the mission, employees are more likely to accomplish their goals if they have effective leaders to help them do it. What’s more, having leaders who are reliable and suited to their position increase employee satisfaction. For these reasons, NASA makes leadership development a priority, offering training and setting goals for every level of management at the agency.

Helpfully, NASA outlines its leadership roles, dimensions, and strategies on their website, so that other agencies can learn from them too. Even if your management structure contrasts with NASA’s, the core dimensions of business acumen, personal effectiveness, information and knowledge management, discipline competency, and people guidance should be focus areas for your leaders.

2. Match skills to missions. Satisfaction in your job doesn’t come from having a stellar mission. It comes from working towards a mission that you personally believe in, and that you have the skills to achieve. That’s what NASA teaches us. The agency’s results also show that relating specific roles to organizational success can also have a powerful impact on individual happiness.

At your agency, take the time to emphasize how each person’s contributions are integral to agency success. Where specific jobs aren’t clearly aligning to objectives, re-evaluate the role. It’s possible that the skills deployed in one role may be better suited to different tasks. In those cases, work to reassign employees to missions that better leverage their unique skill sets.

3. Provide training and development. Even if your staff have the necessary skills and leadership to achieve their goals, you run the risk of creating a complacent workforce if you don’t also offer them opportunities to stretch the limits of their abilities. NASA’s Agency Training and Development Office does just this. It provides training–informal and formal, inside and outside the agency–to its employees so they continually accrue new skills and knowledge.

For an agency whose mission is to pioneer new frontiers, this constant momentum is necessary. But it’s just as important to other agencies, because training offers new challenges and gives employees the tools needed to advance their careers.

4. Maintain work-life balance. Before you say that this is impossible to do at your agency, consider that–moreso than many other agencies–NASA’s budget is continually shrinking. Yet even with fewer resources the agency continues to maintain a healthy work-life balance for its employees. In fact, some cost-cutting measures are actually working to improve this balance. Teleworking is a prime example. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden challenged his agency to make teleworking opportunities available to all employees. Now, resources, tools, and testimonials have been published to support these initiative.

In addition to teleworking, NASA offers flexible working schedules, child care services, and wellness programs to improve employee work-life balance. Each of these programs received favorable reviews by employees, and are tactics easily transferred to other agencies.

5. Encourage innovation. You might say that innovation is the foremost goal of NASA, so it’s unsurprising that it ranked so highly in this category. But the Departments of State and Commerce—agencies dedicated to the oldest functions of trade and diplomacy—were also rated well, proving that it doesn’t take a new mission to engage employees. What actually engages employees is the idea that they can be apart of, and even lead, changes to their organization. Support and encouragement from the agency is crucial to fostering this feeling of potential. At your agency, it’s worth emphasizing an openness to employee-led innovation and creating channels for their ideas to be cultivated.

Interested in learning more from NASA? Check out their full report on the agency’s 2014 employee satisfaction results here. More results from the survey-at-large are also discussed in our blog, Happy to Work in Gov? Survey Says No.

Photo Credit: Flickr/NASA

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richard. regan

You should also add to the list that they are one of the most white and male dominated agencies in the federal government that is not very inclusive of people of color, just as the picture for this entry suggests. Until the federal government starts seeing best places to work as more than just country clubs of people that look like each other, talk like each other and act like each other, engagement and employment levels for people of color and disabilities will never get any attention in this GovLoop space. Whatever happen to developing a federal work force that looks like our country’s diverse population. To encourage other agencies to be more like NASA is a slap in the face to inclusion.

Lets not forget about the privilege associated with agencies like NASA that make them not look like the rest of the USA. A mission that thrives on highly educated workers, technical expertise, connections to the military, all advantages that most working class people do not have access to.

richard. regan

There has been a lot talk lately in the engagement space about how NASA and Google are the best places to work in the public and private sectors. NASA was hailed as the best place to work in the federal government for the last 3 years by the Partnership for Public Service based on its Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings. Google made Glassdoor’s 2015 Best Places to Work List in the USA and UK.

What is the secret sauce that make NASA and Google the greatest shows on earth-high levels of engagement.

Certainly, NASA and Google should be congratulated on creating workplaces where their employees bring high levels of discretionary commitment to their work every day. Great bosses, super benefits, cultural fit, mission, work life balance, plush offices and enviable retirement packages make Google and NASA privileged places to work. On the other hand, let’s not get carried away. Lurking in the background of these great places to work is the statistical fact that shows a disturbing amount of bias and exclusion at these organizations.

NASA and Google are essentially male, white dominated organizations. According to the latest data from the Office of Personnel Management, males make up 64.7% of the NASA workforce and whites constitute 73.7% of NASA employees. Google according to their latest Equal Employment Opportunity-1 Report did not fare much better. At Google, males compose 79% of their workforce and whites represent 72% of their total employees.

What is so amazing about Google is they break the mold for the business case for diversity. They are making money without a diverse workforce. Who said to be profitable you have to look like your customer. Google as reinvented this business model. They have said loud and clear, if you build a better mousetrap the world will beat down your door to buy it regardless of what your workforce looks like.

A disturbing trend is developing as NASA and Google prop themselves up as model workplaces. Want a great workplace? Hire only people that look like you, talk like you, act like you or graduated from the same college as you. Who needs diversity much less inclusion? Anyway, inclusion is a too much work and messy. I will take my chances with building an organization around people who have something in common.

Imagine if you are a person of color or a woman at NASA and Google. How would you answer these questions as posed by thought leaders, Kecia Thomas and Mauricio Valasquez?
• Are people like me represented in leadership?
• Does my leadership have the best interests of people like me?
• Can I make an individual mistake without it being attached to my group?
• Can I speak with someone in leadership and feel confident they will understand my uniqueness?
• Can I seek information without being labeled needy?

Imagine if you were a black woman at NASA and Google, would you feel pressured to straighten your hair? If you were an American Indian, could you feel free to speak out against Indian mascots? If you were Asian, could you avoid the stereotype of Information Technology geek? If you were Hispanic, could you get the organization to do more outreach to underrepresented communities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields? If you were a woman, would you feel comfortable talking to your male colleagues about what it means to be a mother?

It is complicated question. Does engagement need inclusion? Does inclusion need engagement? I will let you decide. But for this American Indian, I will take disengaged organizations who are working on inclusion over engaged homogenous institutions every time. At the end of day, you have to ask yourself. Would you rather work for a country club? Or would you rather work for an organization that is trying to look like the rest of the world?

If you are still in doubt and looking for answers, don’t worry, you can always google it.

Irma I. Dickinson

HI Richard Regan , could you please send me a picture of yourself. You see i had a stroke a few years back I was paralized completley I can not remember alot of things in my past. Thank you Irma Dickinson.


I have a female acquaintance who works for NASA near DC and she does not seem to agree – Males and females don’t seem to be treated equally and some of NASA’s good news may be more of a good job at constructing sound bytes. I hope that NASA can improve in these areas.