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Posted by on Dec 3, 2015

Getting to the Root of Federal Employee Engagement

Getting to the Root of Federal Employee Engagement

Employee engagement, culture, FEVSEach year when the Office of Personnel Management releases the results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) agencies across the Federal government get a window into the health and status of their workforce. For Federal leaders, the FEVS provides an opportunity to understand how employees feel about their jobs, their agency, their ability to grow, and their overall employee engagement levels.

Since the surveys’ inception in 2004, Federal Human Capital (HC) and Human Resources (HR) practitioners have had a solid tool for understanding and quantifying the organizational challenges faced by their agencies, and many have used the results as a springboard for initiatives aimed at improving the Federal employee engagement. In recent years, though, despite focused effort on moving the needle on engagement, sustained improvement has proven elusive for the Government as a whole.

One potential reason why the various FEVS-inspired engagement initiatives have failed to show sustained results could be that the initiatives are addressing climate rather than culture.

The Difference Between Climate and Culture

Organizational culture and organizational climate are complementary but different psychological aspects of every organization. According to the Handbook of Psychology organizational climate is “the perception of practices, policies, procedures, and routines in the organization.” Climate is the generalized description of “the way it is around here” and reflects a shared understanding of how things are or how things were. It includes perceptions about reward systems, structures, leadership, autonomy, and job design. Like measures of the physical climate (such as temperature and humidity), measures of organizational climate (such as the FEVS) provide a snapshot of the current state of the organization and offer insight into the day-to-day experience of the organization’s workforce.

In contrast, organization culture encompasses the norms and expectations that shape workplace behaviors. According to Edgar Schein, professor Emeritus at MIT’s Sloan School of Business and a leading expert on organizational culture:

“Culture is the pattern of shared assumptions that has worked well enough to be considered suitable, and as such should be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, behave, and feel in response to the problems and challenges the organization faces.”  

While climate reflects organizational conditions that members experience, culture reflects the shared values and beliefs that generate and reinforce behaviors that create climate and shape organizational outcomes. As such, achieving sustained improvement in an organization’s climate (to include employee engagement) requires interventions aimed specifically at changing the underlying behavioral norms that govern overt behaviors.

Changing an organization’s culture requires an investment of time and effort and a commitment to seeing change initiatives through. If your agency needs to transform its culture here are a few things leaders should consider to get the process started.

  1. Start by measuring the current culture

Former publishing executive and marketing expert, Michael Hyatt says, “Culture is largely invisible to those inside of it. It’s like water to a fish or air to a bird. It’s simply the environment we live in.”

Because culture is so embedded in the organization, describing and understanding the culture is an important first step in charting the course for change. Validated inventories can provide a common language and assessment of your organization’s current culture. Human Synergistics International’s Organizational Culture Inventory (OCI)®, provides tools to assess current organizational culture and identify gaps between the current and ideal state.

As an added benefit, surveying the workforce about culture demonstrates that the organization is attending to the culture and its implications for individual, team, and organizational performance.

  1. Be intentional about managing culture

Perhaps the most important element of changing culture is deliberately paying attention to what you are hoping to change.

To achieve the mission and act in alignment with the vision, stakeholders throughout the organization must consciously attend to, embody, and manage the culture of the organization. In practical terms, this means being a role model for the rest of the organization by demonstrating the culture-shaping behaviors you want the rest of the organization to adopt.

  1. Identify the targets for change

One of the most difficult elements of a culture change initiative is figuring out where to start. Completing a culture assessment (see #1) can help you identify the areas where change is most likely to have a positive impact on culture, but selecting the targets for your change efforts can still be a daunting task. To increase your chances of success, don’t focus on culture. Instead, identify a top challenge, strategic priority, or goal for the organization and use your assessment results to understand how culture may be affecting that challenge. Then, make a plan to address the selected organizational challenge that creates the new cultural norms required to move toward your ideal culture.

  1. Be realistic about the process

While undesirable changes to culture can happen overnight, making positive changes to your culture can be a long process. Some experts estimate that changing culture in a large organization could take three to five years, so before embarking on a culture change initiative, make sure that everyone, from senior executives on down, is committed to seeing the change through to the end.

Organizational culture is powerfully embedded throughout the organization. While a solid roadmap for culture change can provide indicators of interim progress, there are typically no quick fixes. As such, an essential ingredient in any culture change effort is a realistic view of the process and how long it might take to see meaningful results.

  1. Identify and celebrate what’s good about your current culture

It can be far too easy to become disillusioned by dysfunctional elements of your organizational culture and forget the bright spots that exemplify the organization you want to be. Whether it’s a large division, small workgroup, or even a few individuals, there are most certainly places in the organization who have embraced the ideal norms that represent the desired future state for the organization.

So, before you start down the path toward change, use the results of your culture assessment to identify areas of the organization where best practices can be identified, celebrated, and used as the foundation for changing the broader organization.

Changing the culture of Federal government organizations can feel like an insurmountable challenge. And it’s no secret that any change can be very hard. Research by McKinsey & Company in 2008 found that only 30% of organizational change efforts succeed. But, with the aging Federal workforce, and predicted shortages of talent for critical Federal positions, the consequences of failing to attract and retain the next generation of workers could be significant.

On the positive side, though, the benefits of constructive organizational cultures are well documented. Organizations known for their culture from Amazon to Zappos consistently outperform competitors. Federal agencies could benefit from the innovation, commitment, and energy that characterize these organizations.

Many agencies are ready for a culture change, and with careful planning and commitment, any organization can realize the benefits of a new and improved culture.


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