The disengagement doldrums
Wake up. Go to work. Go home. Go to sleep. Repeat until retirement. It can be a pretty bleak existence if we don’t find joy in our careers.
Unfortunately for most workers – both in the public and private sector alike – disengagement runs rampant. We find no satisfaction in our jobs, we can’t connect with them and we end up doing the bare minimum to get by. This disengagement deprives us of meaning, and the mission of our overall organization goes unfulfilled.
Conversely, engaged employees – those who find purpose and meaning in what they do – have greater levels of satisfaction in their lives, and are more productive in their day-to-day activities, says Alex Smith, the chief human resources officer for Memphis, Tenn. Engaged government employees offer higher levels of service, and departments with fully engaged workforces are better able to achieve their goals.
So how can managers better engage their employees? To address the issue, we first must understand the problem.
The Disengagement Doldrums
Robert Lavigna, director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement says most employees aren’t fully engaged in their work, but in local government, engagement levels are particularly lackluster.
Every year, his organization conducts a survey to assess the levels of engagement in both the private and public sectors. The institute polls approximately 2,000 employees in a variety of occupations online to get a better understanding of how present and committed workers are feeling.
The percentage of fully engaged individuals in the private sector, according to the institute’s research, is 43 percent. This compares to 30 percent in government overall, and 31 percent in local government specifically. “There’s a significant difference based on our survey between the private and public sectors,” Lavigna says.
The reason for the discrepancy, Lavigna says, is based in the fundamental differences between the two sectors. For example, the public sector is far more visible than their private sector. Goals and outcomes are often more difficult to measure. The ability to reward outstanding performance is limited. Elected and appointed officials come and go, and with them too, go their goals, values and policies. The list goes on, but it’s important that leadership take up the challenge to ensure their workforce is present and committed.
Why should we care?
There are decades of research demonstrating the link between improving employee engagement and improving organizational performance. Much of this research was initially conducted in the private sector, but it showed a direct link between high levels of engagement and positive business outcomes, Lavigna says. Simply put, highly engaged workforces outperformed their disengaged counterparts in every key financial indicator.
As it often does, the public took a cue from the private and started to look at engagement in its own workforces as well. “There’s been research in government, too, showing that high engagement is linked to outcomes that matter to government organizations as well, Lavigna says. “There’s a growing body of research in the public sector that engagement is linked to things like achieved strategic goals, retention, customer service and on-the-job safety.”
Ultimately, every government workforce is to serve taxpayers,” Smith says. “You need to make sure you have a workforce that is committed to providing the services citizens are paying for.” With this in mind, she says it is hugely important for departmental leaders and elected officials to prioritize engagement. When employees are present and focused on their work, they provide much better service than their disengaged counterparts.
Lavigna says an engaged government workforce will ultimately create a positive feedback loop he calls the engagement value chain. “Improved engagement drives better performance, that drives higher citizen satisfaction, that drives more trust in government,” he says. “If public sector employees believe the people they serve trust them, they are more likely to be more engaged. We consider that a virtuous cycle.”
But how can leaders get the ball rolling? What can be done to take a disinterested workforce and reignite passion?
How to boost engagement
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to bolster employee engagement. There’s no turn-key model available that will work universally, Lavigna says. Promotions and bonuses won’t hurt, nor will intangible benefits like flexible hours and work from home programs; however, in order to grow and sustain engagement in a meaningful way, leaders need to understand what motivates their employees. To do that, you have to ask them.
“Just like anything else, in order to manage it, you need to measure it,” Lavigna says. “There are a lot of ways to potentially improve engagement… you can throw stuff against the wall and hope it will have an impact, but you have to understand what makes your workforce tick.”
By surveying employees and asking them what their goals are, what their passions are, and what the organization can do to help those goals and passions become reality, leaders can get a better understanding of how to better motivate a workforce, Lavigna says. But it’s not good enough to simply ask – leadership has to make the commitment to action.
Memphis has committed to surveying employees annually and using the results of these surveys to create programs and offerings in accordance with employee desires. Smith shares their public works department and police department have both seen major boosts in engagement as a result of acting on survey feedback. “The engagement survey is a great tool,” she says. “It helps our division directors understand what some of their challenges are, and to create solutions or shift the way they do things.”
Taking employee feedback seriously can have a major impact on engagement levels. “Employees who feel they are valued and believe their organizations understand their worth tend to have higher levels of engagement,” Lavigna says. “It’s not always about money, it’s also about making sure our employees believe the organization values them and that they’re making a difference.”
Smith agrees and adds that validation and recognition are also to extremely important aspects of the engagement equation. Her city recently started its “Bravo Memphis” award program, which recognizes employees for outstanding work and rewards them monetarily. “This incentivizes employees to go above and beyond,” she says. “We celebrate success.”
And while it’s great for employees to be satisfied in their jobs, Lavigna says it’s important for leaders to understand efforts to boost engagement are really efforts to drive positive outcomes. “Sometimes engagement is stigmatized as a touchy-feely-HR thing, but really, it’s about performance,” he says. “The private sector figured that out a long time ago, and more and more public sector organizations are understanding it as well.”