The BC Public Service has had an intense focus on improving employee engagement for three years. We’ve done that using one of the most probing and comprehensive engagement models applied anywhere in Canada. It not only gives an effective measurement of engagement, but also allows for substantive follow through by giving insight into the real root causes of disengagement right down to the work unit level.
By tackling those challenges, the BC Public Service has achieved two consecutive years of significant improvement in engagement scores. That progress has also taught some valuable lessons – chief of which is to focus on high return-on-investment interventions.
BC Stats, on behalf of the BC Public Service Agency, conducts the annual survey. We provide in-person interpretation and guidance to the executive team, management teams and even groups of employees embarking on local improvement processes.
We have learned:
1. Don’t manage by averages. When presented with results for their ministry, most executives’ first question is how they compare to other organizations, and their first efforts are to identify areas to target with corporate improvement efforts. However, it is vital to understand that there is typically a wider range of performance within an organization than there is between organizations. For example, the range in Employee Engagement scores from the highest to lowest performing ministries in the BC Public Service in 2008 was 12 points (out of 100). The range in scores at the work unit level was a staggering 56 points, even after two years of improvement efforts. Identifying those work units that are struggling, and targeting investment and effort at the specific areas in which they are struggling, will do more to improve performance than introducing corporate improvement programs.
2. Internal benchmarks are far more relevant than external benchmarks. Improvement is ultimately about learning what works in a specific context and applying that knowledge systematically. To know what Google is doing is of limited utility to most public service executives – the public service is not, and cannot be, like Google. Fortunately, it is not necessary to emulate Google in order to achieve excellence. BC now has many diverse examples of work units that are performing as well as or better than external benchmarks – from warehouses to policy shops. We often do better through understanding how some managers are producing exceptional local results in similar contexts. Further effort must now be invested in understanding this local excellence, and in codifying and disseminating that knowledge to others across the public service.
3. Employee engagement is a management problem, not an HR problem. Executives facing lacklustre engagement results are tempted to hand the problem to the HR function and ask them to devise an improvement plan. But employees want to have their managers carrying the ball. Plus, HR is not typically resourced or equipped to understand the issues at the fine-grained level where intervention is needed.
If HR reaches for a traditional grab-bag of corporate approaches, cynicism and possibly deterioration can follow. For instance, recognition programs, on the surface, sound like a wonderful solution to help employees feel better about the organization. However, these should be seen as the icing on the cake. Work units with high scores on supervisory-level management typically also have high recognition scores. The kind of recognition most employees are missing is the day-to-day encouragement from their supervisor who is actively interested in the quality of their work and their personal and professional development.
However, HR can contribute to four of the key drivers of employee engagement:
· Executive-level management
· Supervisory-level management
· Vision, mission & goals
· Staffing practices.
Executive-level management is the single most powerful driver in our model. Improvements here make a big difference to the outcome. And because executives are few in number, improvements here have very high leverage. Altering the behaviour and improving the performance of a handful of people can affect the entire organization.
To improve executive-level management over the long term, we must look first at our selection processes. The up-front investment in selecting the right people for the job will ensure that we further develop the right people. I would argue that our current selection practices do not come close to placing sufficient emphasis on executives’ skills to communicate with employees in such a way as to build employee engagement.
Second, the most senior ranks of the organization need to articulate clear standards to all executives as to what is expected from them in building employee engagement. This includes establishing goals or targets, measuring achievement, and it may include incentives.
Third, there needs to be an organization-wide expectation that all executives will continue their own personal and professional development, possibly supported through a standardized executive development program (including the use of executive coaches). However, it is vital to ensure that whatever development program is chosen, it makes use of the latest understandings of employee engagement based on solid research and emphasizing communications.
When executives realize how much impact a few shifts in their behaviour and emphasis can have on organizational performance, they usually come to see this as the single highest return on investment activity in improving employee engagement. This is not intended as a critique of today’s executives, but rather to suggest that we must change our practices in the face of new information.