Employee survey sheds spotlight on leadership flaws, opportunities

Monday - 11/26/2012, 9:20pm EST

Jeff Neal, senior vice president, ICF International

Download mp3

Linda Springer, executive director of government and public sector, Ernst and Young, LLP

Download mp3

Dan Blair, president and CEO, National Academy of Public Administration

Download mp3

Federal employee satisfaction on nearly every measure dropped this year, according to the 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Complaints about federal pay mostly fueled feds' declining morale. But former federal human-capital officials also pointed to the role of senior agency leaders.

Leadership a 'leading indicator'

The 2012 leadership scores were middling — literally, according to Linda Springer, executive director of the Government and Public Sector at Ernst & Young.

"When you look at the list of items ranked by positive response, you have to go halfway down the list before you come to leadership showing up," said Springer, former director of the Office of Personnel Management.

Jeff Neal, senior vice president at ICF International, said the leadership scores are troubling because employees' perceptions of management are often a "leading indicator" of other measures.

Often, how employees view their agencies is driven by the quality of leadership, said Neal, former chief human capital officer of the Homeland Security Department.

With leadership metrics trending downward this year, next year could see even more areas falling behind, he added.

In the most recent survey, the numbers of federal employees indicating high levels of respect for senior leadership fell 3 percentage points to 54 percent. However, despite the drop in 2012, that number has stayed pretty consistent over the past few years, said Dan Blair, former acting OPM director.

Also dragging down leadership scores are "perennial complaints" that agency leaders fail to properly recognize high performers and a "melting of esteem for federal leaders and agencies," Blair said.

For example, the number of respondents agreeing that employees are recognized for high levels of service fell nearly 3 percentage points to 48.4 percent. And just a third of employees felt that differences in performance among workers in the same unit were recognized by leadership in a meaningful way.

Difference between management, leadership

Springer said that highlights a lack of creative leadership.

"Even within some of the compensation limits that we have, there are ways to recognize people who do a good job," she said.

The problem, however, is that many supervisors don't necessarily understand the difference between leadership and management, she said. And the survey results appear to bear this out.

Nearly two-thirds of employees reported that managers effectively communicated their agency's goals and worked well with employees of different backgrounds, according to the report. These are typically areas associated more with the day-to-day managerial operations.

But just 43 percent of employees said their agency's leaders "generate high levels of motivation and commitment," down from 45 percent last year.

"Motivating employees is a "special leadership quality that differentiates it from just the nut-and-bolts supervisor focused on a task," Springer said. "There's more to it."

RELATED STORIES:

OPM survey: Tight budgets, pay freeze 'taking toll' on employee satisfaction

Survey reveals wide differences in agencies' human-capital efforts

CHCOs feel effect of budget crunch on recruiting, training