Measuring leadership — and identifying federal agencies that breed effective leaders–has rarely been a simple undertaking.

While the the Office of Personnel Management’s 2011 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey captures a surprisingly comprehensive view on the state of leadership at various federal agencies, finding actionable measures of leadership at work remains an elusive science.

That’s one of the values of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government study produced by the Partnership for Public Service, which provides a deeper perspective on what employees seem to be saying in their survey results.

One piece of analysis that is relevant to virtually all employees who find themselves leading others is a set of findings in the Best Places to Work study which looks at employee satisfaction compared to how well employees are aligned with management’s perspective on key workplace issues.

As the chart above shows, there is a wide disparity from agency to agency between employee satisfaction and managerial alignment. The chart sorts agencies into four groups:

More Aligned / More Satisfied
Agencies in this group have Best Places to Work index scores that exceed government-wide norms, as well as greater-than-normal alignment between staff and managers on key workforce issues.

Less Aligned / More Satisfied
Agencies in this group have Best Places to Work index scores that exceed government-wide norms, but less-than-normal alignment between staff and managers on key workforce issues.

More Aligned / Less Satisfied
Agencies in this group have Best Places to Work index scores that fall short of government-wide norms, but greater-than-normal alignment between managers and staff on key workforce issues.

Less Aligned / Less Satisfied
Agencies in this group have Best Places to Work index scores that fall short of government-wide norms, as well as less-than-normal alignment between staff and managers on key workforce issues.

If managers and staff do not agree on where the problems are, the chances that effective reforms can take place are likely to be undermined, making it much harder for talented individuals to succeed in their management role.

That’s all the more true at a time when getting diverse groups to collaborate in government has perhaps never been more important.

The Best Places to Work rankings’ authors make several observations about the lack or presence of alignment:

  • While a good deal of information regarding staff and manager perspectives can be found in the responses to Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey questions that are used to compile the Best Places to Work rankings, they are routinely ignored.
  • The staff includes employees who do not have supervisory responsibilities. Managers include senior leaders, managers and supervisors. It is normal for managers to answer surveys more positively than staff. After all, managers typically have more status and autonomy, earn more money and exercise more authority.
  • But how big a spread is normal? A closer look reveals that some agencies have cadres of managers whose lack of connection to employees is “off the charts” relative to peer agencies. Results that reveal a large gap between managers and staff may place mission goals, change efforts and day- to-day performance at risk.
  • The staff/manager alignment score assesses the degree of alignment (or disconnect) between agency staff and managers across the 50 selected questions from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. The score capitalizes on a key benefit of the survey – the ability to readily compare the alignment of staff and managers at an agency to a government-wide benchmark. This allows for clear distinctions between agencies that have normal gaps and those that may be at risk due to very large disconnects in staff and managers’ perceptions on a broad range of issues.

As the Best Places to Work’s authors note: the alignment results show that some agencies struggling with low index scores, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Education, must also overcome big disconnects in the way managers and staff view basic workforce issues.

At the same time, they note, the better-than-average alignment at agencies like the Department of Agriculture and the Agency for International Development suggests that these agencies may be positioned for improvement and change efforts, despite relatively low Best Places to Work index scores.

There also are a few surprises among agencies with traditionally strong Best Places to Work index scores–as is the case with lower-than-expected alignment scores for the Government Services Administration and the Social Security Administration.

Looking within an agency, alignment can vary drastically between subcomponents. Consider the Department of Health and Human Services. With a score of -38, the staff and managers at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are not aligned on most questions. However, the staff and managers at the Food and Drug Administration are much more aligned than the government norm with a score of 28.

Staff-manager alignment is important to consider when undertaking department-wide changes in workplace performance and culture, and also highlights opportunities for sharing promising practices between organizations within an agency.

More details on the what steps leaders can take to improve these scores, and make other improvements, are available by contacting the Partnership for Public Service at [email protected].