How often has a new employee arrived in an office only to discover the manager who hired her is out of town or in meetings, no one else is expecting her, no workspace has been prepared and no direction is offered – other than where to find a cup of coffee?
First impressions cut both ways – those initial days tell an employee a lot about the organization she’s joined – and form the foundation of a psychological contract, reciprocal obligations we feel toward, and expect from, an organization. Great workplaces are determined in part by the commitment employees feel towards the organization. But when we believe those obligations are not being met, commitment soon suffers.
At a time when recruitment and retention are more than mere buzzwords, building strong commitment to the organization may be a key to retaining the best employees. And much of that rests with an organization’s leaders.
In past studies, the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC) has found that how an employer engages employees is indicative of that workplace. The more high quality the exchanges, the better the manager-employee relationship, and the greater the sense of commitment.
Following roundtable discussions with public executives and its members, IPAC produced a handbook for public sector managers that offers strategies and tools to foster effective commitment from a culturally and generationally diverse workforce with different expectations, experiences and expertise.
The ideas in Building Commitment are not new, but through case examples and managers’ worksheets they provide a valuable reminder and proven method of how best to engage employees. IPAC surveys have found that while many senior managers convey a high degree of commitment, there is less engagement from younger public servants and those in high-pressure scientific, professional and technical positions. These same groups traditionally also give managers the poorest leadership ratings and, not surprising, are the most likely to leave. As Prof. Linda Duxbury has shown, however, they are the group required to fill the pending public service gap.
IPAC identifies three types of organizational commitment: affective, or an emotional attachment; normative, or the obligation one develops for an organization; and continuance, acquired over time as an employee recognizes the investment she has in the organization. The former is the most significant and the most long lasting. While a committed employee is obviously more motivated and a higher performer, IPAC also found such employees increase intellectual capital.
The handbook reminds managers that employees in those groups are seeking greater freedom and independence in their jobs, more prospects to learn and grow, more recognition for their contributions, and more opportunities to collaborate. Surveys have found they want to be more involved in the broader decision-making of the public sector, not just in their own sphere, and if decision-making is hierarchical and concentrated at the top, they become less committed. Not surprisingly, they also insist on procedural justice – that decisions are consistent and made fairly. These issues are directly related to trust, a key condition for commitment.
The need for greater collaboration, however, presents managers with unique challenges, especially if it is required during times of change. When bringing together different groups, leaders must understand and recognize the stages of team evolution in order to manage strong and effective teams.
Throughout the handbook, IPAC highlights landmines that often maim well-intentioned managers. Again, many may seem self-evident but they are often neglected or overlooked. A single person issue, for example, is often an indication of a much larger group or job category problem that could plague the office. The importance of work/life balance issues is often preached but not always practiced or permitted. Finally, the book cautions to be self-aware of your own impact.
The tools and strategies range from surveys to exit interviews, to process reviews to the Job Characteristics Model – five characteristics such as skill variety, task identity (is the task meaningful?), task significance, autonomy and feedback that employees rate important and can be measured in all existing positions – but the most obvious is probably the simplest: asking questions and really listening to the answers.
Public perception of government and the civil service seldom fares well in surveys, yet there is rarely a shortage of applicants for jobs, suggesting opinion surveys are not at all indicative of our true feelings about public service. The challenge for managers is to deliver a great environment to which employees can develop long-lasting commitment.