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The huge gap between how federal workers and federal leaders see the workplace

(Jesse Lefkowitz for The Washington Post)
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Federal senior executives, you’ve got a problem.

Employee surveys show that, across government, senior executives have vastly different perceptions than those lower down the ranks have regarding critical workplace issues—including the fairness of promotions, the recognition and awards given for good job performance, and the way poor performers are handled.

From the perspective of executives, things are going smoothly. But that is not at all how employees see it.

An analysis of the 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and the "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" data—done by Deloitte and my organization, the Partnership for Public Service—found that senior executives have a much higher satisfaction and commitment score than their employees. The score for executives is 81.8 on a scale of 100. For employees, it's 59.5.

While it’s not surprising that executives who have decision-making authority and a bigger paycheck might be more satisfied with their jobs and workplaces than their employees are, it’s troubling to find there's more than a 20-point spread between those levels of satisfaction.

Even more troubling, however, is that this gap doubles when employees and senior executives are asked about performance management issues. When asked whether promotions in their work units were based on merit, 79 percent of the government’s senior executives had positive responses compared to just 29.9 percent of other employees, a nearly 50-point difference. When asked whether they believe steps are taken to deal with poor performers who cannot or will not improve, 67.7 percent of the executives said they agree or strongly agree. But for all other employees, the positive response was only 25.8 percent, a difference of about 42 points.

Large differences of opinion also existed when it came to rewarding and recognizing creativity, innovation and high quality work.

It’s not a question of figuring out who is right and who is wrong. When federal employees respond to the anonymous annual employee survey, they are simply sharing their views of the workplace—and their perception almost always informs their behavior. If I truly believe that my organization’s leaders are arbitrary in rewarding employees or that they fail to hold poor performers accountable, my own commitment to the job is likely to be weaker. And if I’m part of the leadership team and I think everything is fine, I am unlikely to change anything.

It’s important to note that the gap in perceptions is not the same in all federal organizations and it varies over time. Wise leaders will use the survey results for their own agency and units to make an assessment. If there is a significant gap in perceptions, a good leader will seek to understand why.

A simple but under-used technique is to ask employees for more detailed feedback on why they see the workplace the way that do and, more importantly, what they would do differently. Candid one-on-one conversations, focus groups or facilitated discussions are some of the tools you can use to figure this out.

One leader I know schedules a regular, open-invitation lunch with her employees to get feedback. After employees expressed some reticence about sharing their views, she now prompts conversation by asking a question: “If you were in my shoes, what would you do to improve the agency?” That has spurred some honest dialogue about what’s working and what could be changed. The fact that she’s acted on the feedback further opens the door to future conversations.

Agency leaders who have seen measurable improvements in employee perceptions have pointed to several other successful strategies. These include workshops for senior executives on subjects such as dealing with poor performers, a mentoring program to pair newer executives with more experienced executives who have dealt with these issues before, and coaching teams of executives to share best practices and to encourage follow-through on performance management and recognition.

Once there is a better understanding, you can make decisions about what needs to change and how. For example, perhaps the agency promotion system is working properly but lacks transparency, or the process used to assess applicants seeking to move up the ladder needs improvement.

Using a combination of formal agency and team-wide strategies along with personal outreach, you’ll be far more likely to get a clearer view of reality, not just what you want to hear. But none of these efforts will be meaningful unless the underlying causes of problems are acknowledged and addressed.

If you have any insights into these issues, please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below or by emailing me at

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is a vice president at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

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