An overall look at employee engagement:
A new 2016 Gallup Report, “State of Local and State Government Workers’ Engagement” http://bit.ly/29TaPj0 shows current employee engagement and disengagement figures in 43 states. The findings illustrate the need for these governments to find strategies to help curb disengagement.
Engagement is one of the key areas that local and state government leaders can invest in and according to Gallup can’t afford not to. They found that employee disengagement costs the U.S. economy roughly half a trillion dollars a year.
Although these numbers are overwhelming on one level, let us take a look at one organization that I can personally attest to in my previous work. As a manager in local government, my personal goal was the importance of dispelling the notion that public employees are less productive. Striving to change the way people view service delivery in the public sector. One of the most effective ways that I found to accomplish this was by working to find the best in people by accentuating their unique qualities.
It’s no secret that managing in the public sector is different from managing in the world of business. When determining the best approach to improve staff engagement and motivation, the culture in the organization is a critical element in how improvements are made. This is especially important in the public sector environment. State, county and local government organizations have the special responsibilities of providing unique services to their respective communities. Governmental entities tend to have a monopoly on the services they provide, such as, police, fire and transportation, which often negates the competitive element and serves as a disincentive to innovate and to be creative. According to Gallup’s report 29% of full-time state and local government employees are engaged at work and this includes police, firefighters, teachers and city and state officials, but 71% of all employees are not in these kinds of jobs.
When compared to the private sector, public sector entities often lack the kinds of incentives and opportunities that would allow for potential monetary impetus to motivate employees, as well as, other potential benefits. Many join the private sector with the expectation of earning significant amounts of money while many enter public service to serve others – managing the two are quite different. It is certainly true that many public sector employees are driven by the desire to serve their communities or that they are inspired by a yearning to help others.
This begs the question as to how public employees stay engaged and stay motivated. Realizing that monetary incentives are not always the answer, they can be somewhat limited in the public arena. With these financial constraints – pay raises, stock options, bonuses and other perks, government managers have fewer options to motivate and keep employees engaged. Faced with this reality, government managers need to focus on agency missions and impact while finding other nonfinancial means to reward employees. Managers must motivate staff by involving them in the decision making process and helping them to see and appreciate their individual contributions within the organization.
Great management always begins with understanding the unique characteristics of the workforce, figuring out what makes employees tick and creating an environment in which they can and want to do their best work. Despite prevailing negative attitudes about government workers – that they are overpaid and underworked - many public sector employees find their careers rewarding. A Harvard Business Review study reported that public sector employees are more motivated by job content, self-development, recognition, autonomy, interesting work, and the chance to learn new things. Research has shown that public servants find meaning in their work by making a positive difference in the lives of the citizens that they serve.
That being said, government tends to have fewer ways to measure progress and success. Since there are no profits to count and measuring spending does not necessarily equal success, progress is calibrated by using various performance measures. While, at times, in the public sector it is hard to measure achievement, seeing that progress is made is crucial to operational efficiency. There are few things that are more engaging than making important progress towards stated goals and objectives. I would argue that, in the public sector, it is the most important thing.
In many cases, in the public sector, there is an effort to make employees well rounded to give them the ability to work in multiple areas. These employees are also subjected to managers that focus on fixing weaknesses as opposed to developing their strengths. This is self-evident in the performance appraisal process were employees are told that in order to advance their career that they must broaden their skill set. Many appraisals include words of congratulation for a year of excellent performance, but later, the conversation changes to how to improve in areas where the employee struggles.
A case for making a change:
In the work that I do now, I help people find their strengths. I have learned that individuals, teams and organizations function better when each person is working in their strength zones while avoiding areas of weakness. Doing this also plays a major role in the success or failure of an individual, team or organization. According to a previous Gallup report, employees who receive strengths feedback have turnover rates that are 14.9% less than employees that receive no feedback or negative feedback. I believe that it is a leader’s responsibility to facilitate a strengths based approach to management. Using this approach, people are more fulfilled, confident, productive, focused and engaged. The most effective managers invest in their employees’ strengths.
When managers focus on strengths:
- They increase awareness of the collective and individual strengths of members of their staff
- They increase the application of strengths and track performance through this application
- They create partnerships that allow for gaps in strengths by paring staff with varying talents
In order to be effective in the public sector teams need to be highly collaborative and have a number of complementary partnerships. Having effective collaborative teams is imperative to ensuring that these organizations are successful.
- Are able to collaborate more effectively while achieving greater performance
Have clear and compelling goals and outcomes and are more productive, creative and adaptive
Create sustained growth and success by continuously investing in each other’s strengths
Using a strengths-based approach in the public sector is the best solution because, as mentioned, the reasons that people work in public service can be quite different than the reasons they work in private industry. In Simon Sinek’s book, “Start with Why”, Sinek asserts that understanding the purpose of what you do (“the why”) is key to achieving excellence in any organization. He points out that making money is a result and is not “the why”. The public sector can often have a hard time identifying its “why” or how to sustain its purpose. Public servants need to be clear as to who they serve, why they do what they do and why people should care. This means that public servants need to clearly understand that what they bring to the organization matters and that they are empowered to make appropriate decisions. They need to be emotionally and psychologically engaged at work to be truly successful and effective.
A cost effective, viable solution:
In government, there is not much room for error. The things that you do are often viewed through the lenses of an inquiring public that wants to know how their hard earned tax dollars are being spent. Leaders who run these programs must use whatever is at their disposal to be successful. Then I pose the question, what if they could leverage more of who they already are in order to accomplish their missions? In a recent research study, the Gallup organization found that employees and leaders were 6 times more likely to be engaged and productive by understanding their strengths, applying their strengths and being provided opportunities to practice their strengths. Also, teams that are actively engaged in intentional strengths based experiences see overall performance improve up to 30% (Wagner & Harter, 2006).
In today’s demanding workplace, people not only need to work hard but they need to bring creativity and insight into their efforts. (Peter Drucker says that is what a knowledge economy is all about). Creativity and insight requires hearts and minds commitment. Therefore, innovative solutions to problems calls for people to be fully engaged and to care about their purpose. This requires a spur beyond the merely monetary.
Real engagement, doesn’t flow from trying to convince yourself that what you are doing will change the world for the better. True empowerment must be sought in how the scope of your work allows you to reach your highest potential. Meaning in work isn’t vested in the product or outcome, but rather in how the daily experience of doing your work helps you to develop as a human being. By exercising autonomy and allowing people to work in their strengths, is the key to topnotch engagement and employee motivation. Having the confidence that is garnered by working in your strengths is paramount to successful execution. Honing and developing what is best in employees is the right formula for sustained excellence. In as much as people need to see value in what they do, they also need to see themselves as better people for having done the work that they do. Incorporating a strengths based approach into employee development programs in the public sector gets at the heart of creating engaged teams and workers that are committed to organizational excellence and achieving progress.
Larry Hammond, Sr. – Certified StrengthsFinder Coach and Principal with V1H Consulting.
Find out more about strengths based workshops and training in our services area.