Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

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Federal Coach: What the Secret Service needs to do now

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Low employee morale can hinder the ability of agencies to effectively carry out their missions on behalf of the American people.

With federal agencies having recently received their 2014 employee survey data, it’s important for leaders to take an in-depth look at the trends, and develop plans to address areas where employee dissatisfaction may be hindering organizational effectiveness.

This is an approach that should be considered by the Secret Service, which has been beset by embarrassing security breaches in the protection of the president. While recent events have taken their toll on employees, an analysis of federal survey data shows the agency has been slipping for some time. The Secret Service, for example, was ranked among the top 25 percent of federal agencies in 2003 in terms of employee satisfaction and commitment, and had fallen into the bottom 25 percent by 2013.

What’s driving this decline? While many factors have contributed to sinking employee satisfaction, leadership certainly seems to be a key issue. The 2013 survey, for example, showed a decline in employee respect for and trust in their senior leaders, as well as a drop in their perception of the leadership’s strategic management abilities, which measures whether employees believe that management ensures they have the necessary skills and abilities to do their jobs.

There are a number of steps that interim director Joseph Clancy and his team at the Secret Service can take to address employee morale. Leaders at other federal agencies should take note as well. Here are a few ideas:

Start with a listening tour. Any leader who has succeeded in leading a turnaround started their efforts by first listening directly to their employees. You need to hear about the negative aspects, but also be sure to mine these conversations for some of the values and other essential elements that make the agency great. Ultimately, you should come out of this with two primary insights: where reform is needed, and what your leadership team needs to do in order to regain the trust of your employees.

Ask employees for their help. Employee surveys don’t provide all of the answers, but they help in asking the right questions. Employees want to be proud of their agency and they want it to work well. They can explain why parts of the organization are heading in the wrong direction and how to get it back on track. And just as importantly, they will help if the leadership lets them. Remember, this isn’t a delegation exercise — it is an opportunity to work together to fix the agency’s problems and rebuild credibility.

Rediscover or redefine expectations. Most organizations in decline have lost their bearings. It’s the job of the senior leadership team to define expectations and to live and work according to those expectations. The work doesn’t stop at finding the right words, but taking action and then reinforcing it with recognition and clear accountability.

Finally, you don’t need to offer breaking news every 15 minutes, but you do need to update employees about your plans and progress on a regular basis. What advice do you have for the Secret Service and other federal leaders on how they can improve employee morale within their agencies? Share your thoughts by posting a comment below or send me an e-mail to fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Oct 28, 2014 at 6:49 AM

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