Our Role in Fostering Employee Engagement

By Don Jacobson

  Click here for the printer-friendly version of this article.

The White House announced in March 2014 that it would make improving employee engagement in the Federal government an explicit goal of the President’s Management Agenda. This was a Big Deal. It was the first time in recent memory that the highest levels of our government had made such a clear connection between government performance and the factors that drive the motivation and effectiveness of frontline government employees.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) immediately embraced employee engagement as one of its strategic priorities. Since 2014, OPM has done extensive research on employee engagement and has worked tirelessly with Federal agencies to encourage them to make improvements. They have also created a website, UnlockTalent.gov, where government employees can drill down on data from the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey to see employee engagement scores at the sub-component level for each agency. While OPM and agency Chief Human Capital Officers have done a great deal of work to promote employee engagement, it is important to remember that their impact on employee engagement is indirect; they are primarily champions for the cause.

Decades of research clearly show that the primary driver of employee engagement is the climate created by supervisors at the work unit level. No factor has a bigger impact on each employee’s motivation than their immediate supervisor, so it is absolutely essential that supervisors at all levels learn to create a work environment that taps into the primary drivers of employee engagement. This article will outline a straightforward leadership strategy for doing so.

But first, let’s step back briefly to shed some light on the concept of employee engagement.

What IS Employee Engagement, Anyway?

The term “employee engagement was coined in the early 1990s and popularized by the Gallup Organization's book First Break All the Rules… (Coffman and Buckingham, 1999). According to Gallup, engaged employees are:

“those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”

One of the hallmarks of an engaged employee is that they apply their discretionary energy and initiative to achieve the goals of their organization. In short, they put their heart into their work. Gallup identified 12 drivers of employee engagement, which they measure using their Q12 workplace survey.

In its September 2015 report Engaging the Federal Workforce: How to Do it & Prove It, OPM defined employee engagement as:

“The 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.”

An engaged employee actually bears a striking resemblance to one who is intrinsically motivated. Intrinsically motivated employees show initiative, take pride in their work, and look for opportunities to make a difference in their organization. Basically, they put their heart into their work. (Sound familiar?)

Intrinsic Motivation

Kenneth W. Thomas wrote one of the classic works on intrinsic motivation, Intrinsic Motivation at Work: What Really Drives Employee Engagement. Thomas identifies four drivers of intrinsic motivation:

  • Meaningful Work: Managers provide an exciting vision about what can be accomplished, establish clear connections between the work and the mission, give employees responsibility for/ownership of whole tasks and foster a non-cynical climate where people can be comfortable caring deeply about their work.

  • Choice: Employees have a clear idea of what needs to be accomplished, the right to make decisions, and the information they need to make decisions. Managers trust employees to manage themselves and do not punish them for honest mistakes.

  • Competence: Employees are: appropriately challenged, given credit for success, and judged based on high--but non-competitive--standards. They also know their jobs well and have data about what is working.

  • Progress: Employees help each other succeed and have access to both customers and to data indicating whether performance is improving. Managers establish clear milestones and celebrate success.

It is important to draw a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Extrinsic motivators are external stimuli controlled by others, like awards, bonuses, or increases to compensation levels. These may provide a short-term boost to motivation, but if they have a long-term impact it is generally negative (i.e. morale is dragged down because the pay or awards are unfair or sorely inadequate). It is the intrinsic motivators that fuel the fire in our bellies that keep us excited about getting out of bed every day.

Fostering Employee Engagement in Your Team

One of my goals as a leader is to create a work environment where my team members love coming to work every day. Over two decades as a manager in government, I have found that the formula below provides a solid foundation for creating a climate that will tap into the intrinsic motivators of most employees.

  1. Give people ownership over their work--and how they do it. That means delegating effectively and empowering employees to find ways to improve the operation.

  2. Invest in developing the capacity of each employee. This doesn’t just mean formal training; most real learning comes in the process of getting the job done. Mentoring, coaching, challenging work assignments, cross-training, and in-service training at the work unit level are all great ways to build the capacity of your team.

  3. Connect employees to a larger sense of purpose. When it comes to meaningful work, the public sector has a significant comparative advantage over the private sector. Many people are attracted to public service because they want to make a difference.  To fuel that drive, it is important to ensure that employees understand why the work they do matters.

  4. Use data to empower the team. Performance data can provide an objective assessment of how the team is performing and make it possible to set goals. Unleashing the creativity of the team to figure out how to achieve [realistic] stretch goals is one of the most motivating things you can do for your team, as it taps into competence and choice while making it possible to achieve a sense of progress.

  5. Manage performance effectively. If you implement strategies 1-4 effectively, it is highly likely that your team will be excited about their work. However, they still need clarity about what is expected of them and they need to know how they are doing. That means delegating effectively, giving honest feedback, and providing appropriate recognition and/or appreciation for good work.

The work of government is done by real people, and our most important function as supervisors is to create an environment where our teams can do their jobs in the best possible way. That's how we create value for the American people. Improving employee engagement is not the responsibility of human resources or your agency's trainers. Only we—the supervisors—can create a work climate that taps into the intrinsic motivators of our employees. Doing so requires effective leadership.


Learning to lead is a lifelong process. The good news is that it does not require permission from anyone. It just requires hard work and commitment—and only you can provide that. Let’s get started!

  Click here for the printer-friendly version of this article.

© 2016 GovLeaders.org