Keeping federal workers engaged

October 16, 2013

(istock photo)

Pete Blank serves as the leadership trainer at the Personnel Board of Jefferson County, Ala., where he supports more than 9,000 civil service employees. He previously spent 13 years working for the Walt Disney Company and has chronicled his experiences in the book “Employee Engagement – Lessons from the Mouse House!” Blank spoke about keeping employees motivated with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. How should federal leaders address the toll the shutdown has taken on morale?

A. Federal leaders need to focus first on the employees who have remained on the job. Every employee currently working has to be told daily that they are doing a great job. The work still has to be done, and these employees are likely taking on heavier workloads. You have to create strong relationships with those that have stayed behind and make sure—through recognition, one-on-ones and communication—that they know they are appreciated. Then inform them of what’s going to happen when the other employees return. Right now, leaders need to be more proactive than reactive.

A lot of government managers are task focused, but don’t really build and develop relationships with their employees. The number one factor in employee satisfaction is the relationship with their manager. Most employees care about their jobs and want to do their best. If they don’t have a good relationship, then it will be more challenging for employees to be successful.

Q. What can leaders do to build better relationships with their employees?

A. They can strengthen their situational leadership skills. We are not always good at changing our leadership style to match our employees. Leaders should ask themselves, “What do my employees need, and what am I not giving them that they need?” Find other managers who are successful at building relationships. Partner with them and find out what they do.

Q. What are some of the employee engagement 'best practices' that a federal agency can learn from Disney?

A. There are two big ones: creating a more pleasant work environment and improving employee recognition. The first requires what Disney calls the “show element,” meaning everything plays a role in creating your work environment. In government, we don’t enhance the office environment. Employees come into a drab, gray office every day, and we wonder why they aren’t excited and engaged. There are economical ways to create a fun, engaging show element. My office does it by hanging little dollar store footballs during football season, changing out the décor during the holidays and partnering with a local art museum to pick up old exhibit posters.

The second is recognition, which is not prioritized in government. Personalized thank you notes and employee recognition programs go a long way. Government work is difficult, but most employees are proud of what they do and work extremely hard. If managers take time for recognition, their employees are able to go out and share good experiences from working for the government.

Q. Any advice for tight budgetary times?

A. Employees must buy into the big-picture concept. As a leader, this means helping employees understand what they are doing and how it contributes to what the agency is trying to accomplish every day. Managers sometimes face competing mentalities. One mentality says employees are replaceable and just a number. The other treats employees as individuals, making them feel like they’re indispensable and assuring them that their intellectual capital is needed. If managers do less of the former and more of latter, I think employees will stay engaged.

Q. How would you advise leaders to put their words into action and demonstrate that they care?

A. We have to remember the importance of one-on-ones, mentoring and informal learning. Sometimes those informal moments come when you’re in a break room or walk into an elevator with someone. Take the time to ask employees what they want to accomplish and how you can help them get there. You will be surprised what employees tell you. We don’t want to miss those opportunities for informal learning that happen all the time. Managers have a huge opportunity when the employee is right in front of them.

Q. How can leaders communicate more effectively with their employees and the general public?

A. Communication means different things to different people. Sometimes managers believe they’re fixing a problem, but it doesn’t meet the needs of employees. The workforce is becoming too diverse for one-size-fits-all management styles. Discuss with employees what they need and then be happy to provide it for them.

In communicating with the public, the challenge is the fantastic invention of social media and the Internet. Employees expect leaders to share information directly and explain the why behind decisions. The American public responds the same way. The Internet is a great communication tool, but it has to be harnessed. That’s why it is important to be timely and up to date when getting information out.

Read also:

And when the shutdown ends?

How to make your agency a better place to work

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Jena McGregor · October 16, 2013