Performance is the key to employee engagement

During the next couple of months, federal agencies will be busy planning how they will lead and manage their federal staff in 2020. The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) Modernization Act of 2010 requires federal agencies to engage in performance management and to strengthen employee engagement in order to improve organizational performance. The annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) assesses, among other things, performance management and employee engagement.

The reality is that many federal agencies will “check the box” and end up with performance plans and employee engagement strategies that will be either siloed or loosely connected. As a result, they can only hope that their employee engagement efforts will lead to better performance, as promised by many business cases. The truth is they will likely miss out on the symbiotic relationship between performance and engagement. Strategically, the better approach is to integrate these two critically important human capital processes by making performance management the centerpiece of the employee engagement strategy. By doing so, federal agencies will drive employee engagement, transform organizational culture, and impact program performance.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) defines performance management as “planning, developing, monitoring, rating and rewarding employee contributions.” It defines employee engagement as “An employee’s sense of purpose that is evident in their display of dedication, persistence and effort in their work or overall attachment to their organization and its mission.”

The FEVS includes ten questions on performance management (performance feedback, performance rating, and performance recognition and reward). The Employee Engagement Index (EEI) consists of 15 questions. The performance management and employee engagement questions help make up the questions in the EEI subindices of Leaders Lead, Supervisors, and Intrinsic Work Experience.

In a Technical Report entitled “The Keys to Unlocking Engagement: An Analysis of the Conditions that Drive Employee Engagement,” OPM cites performance management as the key driver of employee engagement. The three case studies below support OPM’s research findings, at different levels of the federal government.

In 2012, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) along with four other federal agencies volunteered to participate in OPM’s performance management pilot called Goals-Engagement-Accountability-Results (GEAR) to help improve performance management practices. The GEAR Framework promoted best practices for effective performance management, such as aligning performance expectations with organizational goals. HUD implemented the GEAR framework and subsequently saw an improvement in its FEVS scores. During the period 2013-2015, HUD’s performance management scores increased by 5 points or 9%. During the same period, HUD’s EEI also increased by 5 index points or 9%. The increase in performance management drove the increase in employee engagement. According to The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey, HUD went from the worst place to work in the federal government in 2013 to the most improved agency in 2015. The OPM Director also recognized HUD for its FEVS improvements and turn-around.

A second example of performance management driving employee engagement is the case of Federal Occupational Health (FOH), a healthcare component within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Starting in 2015 FOH leaders focused a lot of attention and effort on simplifying and streamlining performance plans to strike a better balance between standardization (cascading goals and alignment) and personalization (relevance to actual work being done). Leaders also emphasized the supervisor’s role as coach to improve performance feedback and accountability. Moreover, FOH implemented purpose-driven concepts and practices to supercharge performance management and employee engagement strategies in order to strengthen and support employees’ emotional ties to agency mission. During the period of 2015-2019, FOH increased its performance management index by 19 index points, or 37%. Similarly, over the same period, FOH’s employee engagement scores also increased by 19 points, and 37%.  FOH went from the bottom of its internal and external peer groups to the top tier and was named a Finalist in several different categories of the 2019 North American Employee Engagement Awards.

The same pattern of performance management driving employee engagement can be seen on a much broader scale in this third instance. During the period of 2015-2019, the governmentwide performance management scores increased by 5 index points, or 9%. Over the same period, the governmentwide EEI also increased by 5 points, or 8%.

As these three cases demonstrate, the relationship between performance management and employee engagement is definitive and symbiotic. The trick is to do performance management well using established best practices, especially emphasizing leadership behaviors. The data also shows that improvements in performance management can offset some of the adverse effects of extraordinary events like government furloughs and shutdowns.

However, it is worth noting that performance management is not a panacea.  Agencies must also continue to focus on improving other workplace conditions. Workplace conditions such as effective communication, teamwork, employee development, job resources and work/life balance will either enhance the effectiveness of performance management or offset the gains in performance management, even leading to a decline in employee engagement.

Mike Anderson is the former chief human capital officer for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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