Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey: The Price of Mistrust

“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% of the Federal work force:

2014 to 2013 FEVS Result Comparison

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%
  • DHS   –   63.1%
  • Interior   –   66.7%
  • Veterans Affairs   –   64.5%

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% 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% 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 farther 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 Federal HR tell 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 .20 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.

 

Leader Development is Not a Luxury

Federal News Radio’s Jason Miller had a story on April 2 with the headline “Better trained supervisors key to improving morale.” Jason reported on WFED’s CHCO survey and an interview Francis Rose conducted with NASA CHCO Jeri Buchholz. The CHCO survey and Jeri stressed the need for leader development as a means of improving employee morale. I believe Jeri and my former CHCO colleagues are spot on. Absent significant investment in developing the leadership abilities of supervisors, the Federal government is going to have morale and performance issues for years to come.

I have heard comments from folks who say the emphasis on leader development and the role of leaders in driving Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) results is an indictment of supervisors. Nothing could be further from the truth. If it is an indictment of anything, it is the culture that says investing in supervisor training is a waste of time and money. That culture has resulted in budget cuts for training programs, a lack of emphasis on developing the so-called “soft skills” of leadership, and a belief that mission-related training is always more valuable than leader development.  Such beliefs harm agencies terribly. Here is why.

Supervisors drive culture and morale. Other than demographic questions, the FEVS has 84 questions. Of those, 65 are under the control of supervisors and managers. Here is are the 2013 FEVS Questions with the 65 highlighted. So why not blame the supervisors? Easy – it is generally not their fault. For the most part, people are selected for supervisory jobs based upon their technical skills. If we are filling a basket weaver supervisor, we generally look at the basket weavers and pick the one the selecting official believes is the best basket weaver. In many cases there is little real consideration, and certainly no structured assessment, of that person’s leadership abilities. Once they are selected, we put them into a job that requires a completely different skill set from basket weaving and give them little, if any, real training to develop that new skill set. Many agencies send supervisors to a class that is called supervisory training, but it is really just training supervisors on the basics of writing job descriptions, using the rating system, and other basic HR-related skills. The “soft skills” are notably absent in many of these programs. So – we select people who are very good at what they do, but not at what we are selecting them for, do little to develop them, and then blame them for our problems. It seems that is grossly unfair to the supervisors and the people they supervise.

It isn’t that there is no interest by supervisors in real training. At the Defense Logistics Agency, we implemented a comprehensive program for newly selected supervisors. It was so successful, we started getting complaints from people who had been in supervisory jobs prior to the program’s start asking why they could not have the same training. It was clear these folks wanted to do a good job. They wanted the training. Our response was to create a “retrofit” program to give them similar training.

If there is clearly a demand and a need, why does real leader development not happen? For many agencies, it is because leader development is not treated as a budget priority. With shrinking budgets and everyone competing for a diminishing pot of dollars, tradeoffs have to be made. Training has not traditionally been viewed as one of the priorities, and leader development has drawn the short straw when the limited training dollars are allocated. There is often a mistaken belief that it would appear selfish for agency leadership to devote dollars to training supervisors when their employees are not getting the training they need. I believe that view, while it is based on the best of intentions, actually harms the very employees it is trying to protect. If employee views are so dramatically shaped by the quality of supervisors as shown by the FEVS, investing in leaders is investing in employees. In addition to the benefits for employees, there is also a benefit to customers of the agency. At DLA, we conducted both employee and customer surveys. We found a very strong correlation between our employees’ views and how our customers rated the quality of support they got from DLA. On some questions, such as “I have the information I need to do my job,” the correlation coefficient was +.90 or better. It was clear that how we treated our employees was directly related to how our customers perceived the service they got from DLA.

With supervisory skills being so directly related to the FEVS results, and employee perceptions being so directly related to customer outcomes, it is clear that developing leaders is not a luxury. It is not a selfish use of precious resources for supervisors and managers’ own benefit. It can and will drive agency results and make the government a better employer. That makes it a necessity.