Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey: The price of mistrust

Commentary by Jeff Neal
Founder of ChiefHRO.com
& Senior Vice President, ICF International

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com and was republished here with permission from the author.

“There’s a world of difference between insisting on someone’s doing something and establishing an atmosphere in which that person can grow into wanting to do it.” — Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

Agencies are releasing their 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) results and many of them are not pretty. Here are results from a few agencies:

Looking at DoD as an example, the results for 2014 are lower than those for 2013 for more than half of the questions. The numbers in other agencies are not much better. The FEVS questions cover a wide range of issues, but the ones that concern me most this year are those regarding agency leadership. Saying they are not pretty is an understatement. Here is how they look in agencies that represent 65 percent of the Federal work force:

Click on the image to view a larger version.

These numbers might lead someone to conclude that employees simply have poor opinions of their bosses, but the FEVS also includes questions regarding how employees view their supervisors and those numbers are significantly better. For example, the question “Overall, how good a job do you feel is being done by your immediate supervisor?” got the following positive responses:

  • Department of Defense – 69.5 percent
  • DHS – 63.1 percent
  • Interior – 66.7 percent
  • Veterans Affairs – 64.5 percent

Some of the difference can be attributed to familiarity. Employees see and talk with their supervisors every day, but may rarely (or never) have a conversation with higher ranking leaders. Regardless of the reason, the fact is that employees are reporting they do not have great trust and confidence in their leaders and the numbers are heading in the wrong direction. Some of the numbers are shocking. Only DoD was able to muster more than 50 percent positive responses for “I have a high level of respect for my organization’s senior leaders” and “Managers promote communication among different work units.” None of the agencies broke 60 percent on “Managers communicate the goals and priorities of the organization.” Think about that. How can an employee work to accomplish the agency’s goals if managers do not communicate what they are? Do we expect them to just stumble blindly into accomplishing them?

Not knowing where the agency wants to go is just one of the consequences of the trust and confidence issues the FEVS reveals. Mister Rogers was right — we have to create an environment where people want to work. A workforce that does not think much of its leaders can be pushed only so far. It will eventually have problems with productivity, recruiting high quality talent, customer service and other factors that are driven by employee engagement. Trust and confidence in leadership can also be a leading indicator that presages drops in other FEVS questions. If this trend continues, it is likely to drag all of the results even further down. At some point, maintaining morale and productivity will become increasingly difficult. The downward spiral has to be stopped soon. Stopping it will take concerted actions by the key players. Here are a few ideas that should be considered.

  • Link manager and executive performance goals directly to agency strategies and objectives. One reason managers do not adequately communicate goals and priorities is that many of them do not have performance plans that are tied to the overall agency objectives. If manager performance plans always contained that type of linkage, managers would have a more personal stake in communicating those goals to their subordinates. Failure to communicate would decrease the probability that they could accomplish the objectives in their performance plans.
  • Conduct regular reviews of the organization’s progress in meeting goals. When I was HR director for the Defense Logistics Agency, I implemented a monthly In-Progress Review for all of our critical programs. The first few were rough — they came in barely aware of the status of their programs and unprepared to discuss anything in detail. After a few painful meetings, people came in ready to discuss status, issues they were facing, support they might need and any problems that needed to be addressed. We went from struggling to implement programs to being able to successfully develop and deploy new initiatives.
  • Create cross-functional and cross-organizational teams as a normal operating process. Too many organizations tolerate stovepipes that operate as though they are islands. Those stovepipes will never go away on their own. They are too comfortable for their inhabitants and give some managers a sense of control and power. Sharing information is viewed as weakening that power. The truth is that sharing information makes the entire organization more effective. Agencies can improve their performance by ensuring that program teams have representation from multiple organizations with diverse skill sets and views.
  • Invest in Leader Development programs for managers and executives. “Supervisory training” is common in federal agencies — usually taking the form of a 40-hour or less course that is heavily focused on the HR rules and policies managers need to know. That training is typically focused on new supervisors. Less common are programs that focus on improving the skills of managers and executives. I have heard too many people tell me “Senior Executives don’t need training.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The roles of executives and supervisors are different. We often assume that a newly-minted SES has all of the skills he or she needs when the new SES is wondering if s/he is the right person for the job. If we want to see improvements in how senior leaders are perceived, we have to develop those leaders.
  • Do not exempt political appointees from leader development programs. Few agencies invest in training for political appointees. The Obama Administration has a program that provides appointees with an initial orientation, but once they get to their agencies, formal training is rare. Given the lack of government experience most appointees have, agencies should identify critical skills and conduct training to fill skill gaps.
  • Hire better leaders. This may seem a bit too obvious, but 30+ years in tederal HR told me it does not always happen. The very best leader development strategy is to hire leaders who need less development. Senior manager and executive vacancies should be filled using processes that focus on rigorous assessment of skills. Most selection processes have such questionable validity that they are only a little better than random chance. For example, most agencies use unstructured interviews. The correlation coefficient (a 0.0 – 1.0 measure of the relationship between the assessment and performance) for unstructured interviews is typically reported by researchers as being in the 0.2 range. Structured interviews and other more valid assessments techniques are more likely to produce selectees who are able to perform.

Unless agencies begin to take steps such as these, it is unlikely we will see significant improvement in FEVS scores. They will continue to fall and the downward spiral will continue until the federal government becomes a toxic workplace. We cannot afford to let that happen.


Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.


MORE COMMENTARY FROM JEFF NEAL:

Should we bring back the rule of three?

Let’s talk about DHS

Do we need one million fewer federal employees?

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