What does it mean when the White House has to issue a directive to the entire government to make federal employee engagement a top priority?
On the one hand it means the federal government is in pretty much the same place as America’s private sector employers: A 2012 Gallup survey found that just 30 percent of American workers are “engaged, or involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their workplace.”
The latest government surveys show only around half of federal employees are satisfied with most aspects of their work. And even in the highest-scoring agencies, a quarter of the workers are deeply disengaged from their work.
On the other hand, there are things about working in the public sector that make engagement even harder: the politics, the uncertain funding, the rules, the paperwork, etc.
Despite those very real limits to workplace engagement, there are some more basic issues that can make the difference: the consciousness of the leaders and their people, the assumptions they make about how the day should go, and what they are committed to creating in their work life.
Take Some Responsibility
First off, it’s tempting to view disengaged workers as either inherently lazy or as victims of bad bosses. Both those stories rob employees of their humanity, their ability to create the lives they want.
At CLG, we strongly believe in the value of responsibility (our first commitment): we are each responsible for what is happening in our lives. So for the federal worker who is dissatisfied with their work, instead of pulling back, what about putting on the big-boy pants and taking an active role in either changing things or changing jobs?
No More Compromises
And then there is the nature of government in the United States: the goal often is to reach a compromise solution, where everyone loses a bit and no one really wins. Working in such a no-win situation is inherently dispiriting to idealistic people who go into public service to make a difference.
One of the transformative commitments of conscious leaders is the commitment to creating wins for all – using creativity and connection to find unique solutions that enlarge the pie rather than fighting over how to divide it.
Go for Genius
Boredom is a common cause of workplace disengagement – the feeling that we’re doing the same thing day after day and we’ve topped out in our careers, even though we may be quite good at what we do can be deeply dispiriting. Contrast this with the excitement we get from working to our maximum potential, doing the thing we most love to do.
At CLG, we call this the difference between working in the zone of competence or excellence and working in the zone of genius. All too often we settle for the safety of working in our zone of excellence; it’s a security that breeds boredom and ennui. It takes courage to stand for what we most want to do, and in the highly ordered federal workplace it takes great creativity to create the space for genius, but it’s a sure-fire cure for dead-end career boredom.
Try a Little Love
But workplace disengagement in the federal government is not solely an issue for federal employees and their bosses. The rest of us also have a role. After all, the federal government is funded by all of us for our mutual benefit.
And this is where the commitment to appreciation (commitment 7) comes in: How often do we actively appreciate the federal workers who screen us at the airport, predict the weather for us, or even collect our taxes so it all can keep running? These days (actually, since the days of the Whiskey Rebellion) it’s common to see “the feds” as the enemy; that’s bound to have a negative impact on government employee engagement.
So perhaps the easiest way we can improve federal worker engagement is to positively engage more with federal workers. That would be a great example of taking responsibility.