Improving federal workers’ view of their leaders

April 9, 2013

This year’s NCAA tournament once again demonstrated that leadership has a considerable impact on a team’s performance and is key to motivating and inspiring players to overcome adversity and other challenges.

The same principle holds true for federal agencies. Federal employee attitudes toward their leaders are a major influence on job satisfaction and commitment, and have a significant impact on performance as well as the ability of agencies to fulfill their critical missions and to provide quality service to the American people.

Unfortunately, federal employee satisfaction with their leaders has been low and is slipping, according to an analysis of the 2012 “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings from the Partnership for Public Service (my organization) and Deloitte.

While employees have not given high marks to their leaders for years, the Best Places to Work survey found that satisfaction with leadership government-wide dropped in 2012 for the first time since the rankings were published, in 2003. The leadership score was 52.8 on a scale of 100, 2.1 points lower than in 2011 — meaning that only slight more than half of the employees surveyed have a positive view of their leaders.

While the trend reflects a negative and now declining picture in employee attitudes regarding leadership, there are some bright spots. Overall, six of 19 large agencies showed improvement in their effective leadership score. Atop the list were NASA, the intelligence community and the State Department.

Given the current environment of budgetary uncertainties, staffing cutbacks and pay freezes, sustained attention to improving leadership is not a luxury but a necessity. Agency leaders at all levels need to strengthen the connection between employees and their work, to motivate and empower employees, and to increase internal communication and feedback.

Based on experiences at a number of federal agencies, including the Department of Transportation and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, agency leaders should:

Communicate a clear vision. It is critical for employees to fully understand the agency’s mission, how it will be accomplished and how it connects to the work that individuals and teams are doing. This requires more than just putting words to paper. The vision must be part of the fabric of the workplace and manifested in the actions of leaders at all levels.

Empower employees. Give employees support and the room they need to think creatively, and be sure to offer constructive and timely feedback rather than dictating how they should solve problems. You should be listening most closely for areas where you can make someone’s job easier. If you can clear a path - reducing paperwork, process steps or approvals - so that they’re empowered to do their work more efficiently and effectively, you will win a lot of fans and improve your agency’s performance.

Share information. It is quite common for federal employees to be dissatisfied with the information they receive from leaders about what’s happening within their agency. By simply opening up the lines of communication to share more news - through town halls, staff meetings, email updates, newsletters or even teleconferences with staff - your team will be appreciative. Just be sure that you are doing so regularly.

Make time to listen. Don’t spend all of your time talking to employees; make some time for listening to their concerns as well. Conduct employee interviews that can include discussions about barriers they face, and how such obstacles might be removed in order to improve their job satisfaction and performance. To the greatest extent possible, create a task list of things you can follow up on to try to resolve any issues people raise.

Don’t forget to say thank you. Whether it’s walking down the hallway or holding a more formal agency awards program, take time to recognize your employees’ hard work - especially those finding new, innovative ways to deliver results despite budgetary constraints. If you really want to step up to the plate, set aside 30 minutes each week to write personal notes to a select number of employees across your team or agency.

There are many other steps that can be taken to create a more positive and productive work environment, but leaders need to be aware of how their employees feel about their jobs and agencies to help chart a changed direction. One starting point should be an examination of your agency’s “Best Places to Work” data to see both where you have problems and where affirmative steps might improve the work environment and, hopefully, employee performance.

What are you doing as a leader to keep your people motivated and engaged during these tough times? Please share your examples in the comment section below or by emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

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See also:

PHOTOS | Leadership rankings of the large federal agencies

COLUMN | The federal agencies that rank best and worst on leadership

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