Leadership is difficult in any environment, but leading in the federal government comes with unique challenges, and frankly, government leaders aren’t receiving rave reviews from their employees.
An analysis of Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® data by my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, reveals that leadership in the federal government is one of the lowest ranked out of 10 workplace categories, with a score of only 54.9 out of 100.
This is especially troublesome because leadership is the key factor in employee satisfaction and commitment, and satisfied and committed employees perform better. Meaning, this is not a happiness issue, it’s about how an agency performs and the service it provides to the American people.
So, why is federal government doing so poorly in this area? What are employees saying about their leaders? As part our analysis, we took a closer look at the 12 leadership questions in the 2011 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey that is used to compile the Best Places to Work rankings, and broke them down into four categories: empowerment, fairness, supervisors and senior leaders.
The factors that are pulling the leadership score down are a sense of empowerment and employees’ views of their senior leadership.”
I’ll admit to you that I suspected our analysis would reveal that employees are most dissatisfied with their supervisors. After all, you interact with your immediate supervisor every day and he or she has tremendous influence on your professional life. But as it turns out, I was wrong. In fact, looking at the government-wide numbers, supervisors are rated more highly than senior leaders by more than 14 points. Instead, the factors that are pulling the leadership score down are a sense of empowerment and employees’ views of their senior leadership.
|Category||2011 Score||Percent Change from 2010|
|Support for Diversity||57.8||1.5|
|Family Friendly Culture||33.6||-7.3|
Government-wide, only 46.3 percent of respondents said they felt personal empowerment with respect to work processes. In addition, only 50.7 percent of federal employees felt satisfied with their involvement in decisions that affect their work.
When it comes to senior leaders, only 42.6 percent of those surveyed government-wide felt their senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment, and just 48.1 percent said they were satisfied with the information they receive from top management about what’s going on in their organizations. In addition, only slightly more than half (52.9 percent) of federal employees surveyed said their organization’s senior leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity, and just 53.5 percent said that they have a high level of respect for those in top management.
The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey defines senior leaders as “the heads of agencies, departments and their senior management teams.” They will usually be members of the Senior Executive Service or equivalent.
Supervisors, on the other hand, are rated more highly, with a score of 63.9. Nearly 67 percent of federal employees say they believe their immediate supervisor or team leader is doing a good job. Fairness overall is rated modestly better than empowerment and senior leaders, with a score of 54.3, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.
Leading in the federal government poses unique challenges. By design, agency’s top leadership turns over often, with the average politically-appointed leader serving for roughly 18 months to two years. Plus, federal leaders are rewarded more for short-term policy gains, rather than on long-term management issues that they aren’t around long enough to see realized.
Add in the fact that federal leaders operate in a virtual fishbowl, with a zero tolerance policy for mistakes or missteps and you have an environment where innovation is an occupational hazard.
Even with these obstacles, there are some basic tenets that apply no matter what the circumstance. Good leadership requires bringing people together toward a common purpose and providing them with insights into how they make decisions, an understanding of their role and how success will be defined. By necessity, a good leader is disruptive because he or she seeks to constantly spur change, growth or improvement. That can cause tension, but will yield positive results if done well.
To better engage employees, improve worker job satisfaction and improve performance, there are other steps that federal leaders can and should take.
Leaders should make a concerted effort to increase the flow of information to and from employees. They should host town hall style meetings with employees, create mechanisms for employees to submit their ideas, act on them and be sure to share the results. They must communicate successes and find ways to recognize employees for results. Leaders also should take time to explain the challenges facing the organization and the reasons behind decisions. If possible, leaders should give employees flexibility to do their jobs, but hold them accountable for performance.
There is nothing more powerful than what employees have to say about their workplaces and their leaders. So, above all else, listen. Then take the information and use it to make the organization more effective. Improved leadership scores will probably be a happy byproduct.
Lara Shane is Vice President for Research and Communications at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.