Strategies for Gaining Employee Commitment and Improving Performance

Howard Risher has 40 years of experience as a consultant and HR executive with clients in every sector. He has published frequently in HR journals and websites.  He is the author or co-author of six book and a growing list of ebooks. The most recent is Building the Workforce Government Needs.  He has a quarterly column in the IPMA HR News.

The outstanding performance by public health specialists this year highlights what elected leaders too often fail to acknowledge – employees are capable of performing at significantly higher levels.  Agencies have rarely had to deal with a more stressful period but as difficult as the current operating environment may be, this is likely to be the best time to break away from the traditional approach to workforce management.  Now the need to adjust to the ‘new normal’ makes this an ideal time to replace outdated practices.

Technology has gotten all the attention but the potential for improved performance is greater with an engaged and empowered workforce.  Government agencies should be on the lists of great places to work.

Government and civil service systems have been resistant to proposed changes for decades.  That history, the influence of unions and employee associations, and the normal human nature resistance to change have been barriers to adopting the work management changes associated with high performance organizations.  A lack of trust unfortunately strengthens the resistance.  The answer to build support for change is investing in effective management, empowering employees, and investing in their capabilities.

The Goal – Improved Performance

Too often in discussions of government performance, the phrase, “doing more with less”, is quoted by someone.  But that is hardly relevant after the past year. 

Today a more relevant goal is – to raise performance levels with existing resources.  There is solid evidence that lessons from the Great Places to Work research can be applied in any organization to create an environment where people look forward to coming to work each day and also improve performance.

Its significant that the top 10 companies on Fortune’s list of the “great places” includes Hilton at #1, a supermarket chain, Wegmans, at #3 and a second hotel company at #10.  Each of three has thousands of employees who are paid at or close to the minimum wage.  There is no inherent reason that would preclude public agencies from becoming great employers and realizing similar gains.

The potential for realizing gains is significant.  First, government’s accomplishments are attributable to the workforce and those costs — payroll plus the funds to support the HR function — typically account for the largest controllable budget line.  The time spent by managers on employee issues should be added to that total.  Second, research by Gallup and others along with anecdotal stories confirms there is a potential for significant performance gains – and therefore savings.  Third, public workforces are losing talent to retirement and improving the work experience will help to attract qualified applicants. 

Businesses should be looking to government as a model.  The latest idea on business websites is that when employers emphasize their purpose, it helps with recruiting and engaging top talent.  The subject has been discussed at the World Economic Forum and by the Business Roundtable.  Purpose is also highlighted on the Great Places website.  To state what should be obvious: Agencies were created to serve a societal purpose. 

The Barriers to Improved Performance

Government’s performance problems date to the time when civil service systems were created.  In the era when those systems were adopted, the best management thinking was based on the work of Frederick Taylor and ‘scientific management’.  Work was largely manual and performance standards were determined by industrial engineers with their stop watches.  They determined a job’s expected daily or hourly production along with the idea that an employee had to produce at least the minimum output – or be fired.

Today civil service practices continue to reflect that reality.  At a recent Congressional subcommittee hearing to “Revitalize the Federal Workforce,” the discussion returned repeatedly to President Trump’s 2018 executive order making it easier to fire “poor performers.”  Every organization has employees who need to improve their performance but only in government would the problem be discussed in a meeting to “revitalize” the workforce. 

A related problem, rigid performance management practices, was highlighted in the Foreword to the new report from the National Academy of Public Administration, “Elevating Human Capital: Reframing the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Leadership Imperative”.

“The public sector’s inability to respond quickly and flexibly to the ever-growing challenges and demands confronting government shaped the burning platform for this initiative. If the nation is to address critical issues successfully . . . government must improve its operations to tackle problems in new ways and, importantly, earn the public’s trust.”

“. . . As government is increasingly called upon to address complex and interconnected “wicked problems,” the need for leaders, managers, technical experts, and front-line workers in the right jobs, with the right skills, at the right time has never been greater. Unfortunately, federal (and state/local) government struggles today to build a public service workforce that can meet the unique demands of our time. It is limited by rigid and outdated hiring, pay, and performance policies and practices.”

Those rigid practices are a barrier to improved performance.  Rigid practices may make sense for manual jobs in manufacturing or for ‘paper processing’ office jobs.  However, in organizations expected to respond to unexpected or complex problems, rigid practices are a barrier to responding effectively.  They also deny employees opportunities to use their capabilities fully.

An added problem is that public agencies generally rely on two separate performance management systems.  One focuses on agency mission and goals, metrics, and high level strategy; the second focuses on employee performance.  Employee performance is in HR’s domain and is administered without obvious ties to agency performance.  In business, managers and employees are linked to their employer’s goals by group incentives and MBO performance plans.

All the evidence confirms a key point:  If the traditional practices are not reconsidered, government will be unable to realize meaningful performance gains.  The headline phrases ‘agile organization’ and ‘organizational health’ both emphasize the importance of quick responses, readiness to try new approaches, and a shared focus on achieving mission and goals.  For meaningful performance gains, employees need to be empowered to address problems as they emerge. 

A proven solution is relying on task forces to define problems and possible solutions.  Employees understand the issues affecting their performance better than anyone.  The teams can be permanent to drive continuous improvement or temporary as new problems emerge.

video presentation

Too often in discussions of government performance, the phrase, “doing more with less”, is quoted by someone.  But that is hardly relevant after the past year. 

HOWARD RISHER

It Starts With Government’s Purpose

The best source to understand the importance of purpose is a 2010 book The Why of Work, by the highly regarded organization consultant, David Ulrich and his psychologist wife, Wendy Ulrich.  They explain why it’s important to emphasize purpose:

On an individual level, people who understand their job’s wider purpose are happier, more engaged, and more creative.  And, from an organizational perspective, when employees see how their roles fit with the company’s goals, staff turnover goes down and productivity rises.  People work harder, use their initiative, and make sensible decisions about their work.  Everyone, from the CEO to customers, feels the positive effects.”

Employees who are emotionally engaged, have requisite skills, and are empowered to make job-related decisions may make occasional mistakes but they are assets, not performance problems.  Investing in employees and in improving their work experience pays off.

The importance of purpose is clear in the scenes of hospital staff saying goodbye to patients treated successfully for COVID.  The satisfaction from the accomplishments of public employees is frequently displayed in movies and TV shows.  For empowered employees, the challenge of tackling problems and the anticipated gratification of success contributes to better performance.

High performing organizations celebrate achievements throughout the year.  It builds collaboration and esprit de corps, contributing to better performance.  Employees take pride in being members of a winning team.  As a guess, everyone involved in producing and distributing the COVID-19 vaccines feels good about what they accomplished.

It does not have to be limited to major accomplishments.  There is a saying in healthcare, “One patient at a time.” Everyone involved ‘wins’.  That has to be true each day at COVID vaccination sites.

The lesson from high performance organizations is to emphasize in communications an agency’s purpose, its progress in achieving goals, and the ongoing accomplishments of the agency’s staff.  Again, “people who understand their job’s wider purpose are happier, more engaged, and more creative.”

The New Performance Management Model

Government’s problems with employee performance are not unique.  A 2019 survey of HR leaders by Gartner found 81 percent were experimenting with different ideas for improving performance management.  Only 18 percent agreed performance management was “achieving its primary objective – improving performance.”

Today those percentages would likely be lower.  Working remotely has severely diminished a supervisor’s ability to monitor or coach subordinate performance.  The separation highlights the new reality of empowerment.  The new working relationships make it important to reconsider the practices used to manage performance.

The arguments for rethinking performance practices focus on three issues:

  • The most important is the new emphasis on coaching and ongoing discussions to improve employee performance. The change in role for managers requires different skills.  That makes investing in training to develop those new skills essential.  Managers play a vital role in sustaining employment engagement.
  • Second, there is recognition that many individuals are affected by an employee’s performance. Now in assessing performance managers can rely on 360 degree feedback that includes co-workers, subordinates. and customers.
  • Third, in government performance ratings are badly inflated. With the renewed focus on equity and fairness, employers are looking for ways to validate ratings.  Requiring managers to explain at least the high and low ratings in meetings with peers is another strategy.

Employers need to recognize both their best and their worst performers.  Unfortunately, the historical focus on poor performers defines the context for many public employers.  Employees do not decide to be poor performers.  Ineffective supervision is often the reason.  Inadequate training is another.  Bias or discrimination is also possible.  The root causes need to be understood and addressed early.

The best performers should get far more attention.  Studies show the best perform appreciably better than the norm.  They stand out and consistently exceed expectations.  They look for opportunities to learn and grow.  They need to be empowered to address operational problems.  Their value should not go unrecognized.

The overwhelming majority – 70 to 80 percent – are performing satisfactorily.

But government has made a mistake in its approach to managing employee performance – it’s the failure to recognize the importance of team or group collaboration.  Teamwork and collaboration are essential for improved performance.

Promoting Collaboration and Group/Team Accomplishments

A prominent difference between the public and private sectors is the business reliance on financial rewards.  Today the phrase ‘pay-for-performance’ encompasses both merit salary increases and cash incentives.  The typical company relies on both along with one-off bonuses to recognize accomplishments throughout the year.  The practices are effectively universal.

A key point is important – business incentives (with the exception of sales incentives) are based on team or group performance.  Today, management incentive plans link payouts to a company’s financial results balanced with success in achieving additional goals like increased customer satisfaction or growth in market share.  The cash payments are an integral component io the compensation package and made annually to all executives and managers.  They all feel they are “part of the team.”

At lower levels so-called gain sharing plans introduced in the 1930s linked payouts to increased efficiency and reduced costs.  Those plans evolved into today’s goal sharing plans which reward team members for achieving goals.  Planned payouts can be modest – 5% of base pay or so – but a key is the ‘formula’ for determining awards.  Each goal is weighted to reflect its relative importance, and defined at three levels – expected, minimum acceptable, and outstanding.  That provides the ‘equation’ for calculating payouts.

Denver introduced a version of gain sharing in 2011, Peak Performance, with cash payouts linked to process improvement.  In an interview the Mayor stated the goal is “to make government fun, innovative and empowering.”  Employees were encouraged to develop proposals to improve results.  This is not to discourage similar initiatives but the gains from process improvement diminish over time.

Here is where the metrics are important.  One of the experts on measuring government performance, UNC’s David Ammons, has observed that metrics are frequently used for reporting but not for managing operations.  They are well suited as the linkage for group incentives focused on improving performance.

Non-financial rewards are always a possibility.  The now classic book, retitled as 1501 Ways to Reward Employees, should be read by everyone interested in improving performance.  However, government needs broad based change.  Non-financial rewards are not suited to reinforcing essential behavior change.

Public employers are generally not ready for performance-based salary increases.  That will require a multi-year investment in training to prepare managers.

Group incentives can fill the void.  Keep in mind that consistent with the ‘gain sharing’ idea, the payouts can be linked to becoming more efficient and saving money.  The payouts recognize what a group has accomplished.

Investing in Talent Management Pays Off

Gallup’s research shows engaged employees are 23 times more likely than disengaged employees to recommend their organization as a great place to work.  They report “friends and caring colleagues are staples of their organization’s culture. Their coworkers truly feel like family.”  They are far more likely to use words like “open” and “integrity” to describe their culture.  In an engaged culture, “colleagues are there for support and to remove roadblocks, not point out mistakes.”

However, its far less likely to find truly engaged and committed workers in organizations that continue to rely on traditional, top down management practices.  The new work paradigm is not about control, its about enabling employees to make full use of their capabilities.

Research has shown the potential to improve productivity can exceed 30 to 40 percent.  Investing in talent and in creating a better work experience is a strategy that can work in any organization.

Don Kettl, one of the country’s experts on public management, argues, “The lack of attention to talent management is one of the truly great challenges of our day.  We face a host of different problems, from contract management to connecting better with citizens, but we won’t be able to solve them without ensuring we have the right people in the right places with the right skills at the right time.”

Dr. Risher is developing a book on the theme of this column and plans to include case studies of public agencies that have adopted “best practice” workforce management policies and practices and realized significant performance gains.  Those who would like to have their story included can contact him at: h.risher@verizon.net

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