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MSPB Chairman to Navy Audience: Engage for Success in Federal Government

By NSWC Dahlgren Division Corporate Communications | April 13, 2016

DAHLGREN, Va. – How did you get here? Is it hard work, opportunity, or just plain luck?

It’s a question that people often ask Susan Tsui Grundmann, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board Chairman.

The new wave band Talking Heads asked a similar question – "Well, how did I get here?" – in their 1981 hit song entitled, “Once In A Lifetime”, named as one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century by National Public Radio.

“Engagement” answers the question and it’s in the report, said Grundmann.

The presidential appointee – speaking to an audience gathered at the Naval Support Facility Dahlgren (base) theater to celebrate National Women’s History Month last month – was referring to a November 2012 report that her agency prepared for the President and the Congress of the United States.

According to the report, “engagement” enables all employees to achieve greater opportunities and success in federal government.

It would have answered the question posed by the Talking Heads as well.

“What we find is that engagement at work is key, and we define engagement as the heightened connectivity to work that is beyond pay and benefit,” said Grundmann. “It is filled with intangibles like communication, opportunity to succeed, and in our report we found that there are six characteristics of engagement.”

The report – entitled, “Federal Employee Engagement: The Motivating Potential of Job Characteristics and Rewards” – cited six elements of employee engagement.

“Take a look at these characteristics – reflect on how they work in your work environment,” said Grundmann.

• Pride in one’s work and work environment. “Do you find your work meaningful? Would you recommend your agency or work unit as a good place to work?”

• Satisfaction with leadership. “Do the organization’s leaders—from first-level supervisors to career executives to agency heads—provide clear vision and sound direction? Are they good stewards of the public interest and public employees?

• Opportunities to perform well at work. “Do employees know what is expected of them, and have the resources and support they need to succeed?”

• Satisfaction with the recognition received. “Does your agency or work unit award excellence? Is that reward based on performance, or is it based on favoritism which is a violation of a merit principle.”

• Prospect for future personal and professional growth. “Does your agency give employees an opportunity to maintain and improve your skills?”

• A positive work environment with some focus on teamwork. “Are employees treated with respect, do your opinions count?” Is the workplace collaborative or competitive?

“This report notes that success at work depends on many factors, and it’s not just hard work,” said Grundmann. “The key we believe is being engaged at work. And that means being present in mind, in body, in spirit, which is ever more challenging when bonuses are capped and when there is more work being conducted by fewer and fewer people. We found, however, that where there is engagement – that heightened connection – the agency performs better, you feel better, and you enjoy work. Engagement at its core is that sense of contribution to your work and your work environment.”


Motivating employees to perform at a high level and encouraging their engagement are essential to an efficient and effective federal government.


“Having skilled, engaged employees is more important than ever, especially in light of austere fiscal conditions, budget constraints, impending retirements, and public debate over the value of Federal employees and their work,” the report states in its executive summary. “Previous Merit Systems Protection Board research has shown the importance of employee engagement for several desirable organizational outcomes, and has discussed the importance of supervisory performance management practices for employee engagement.”


Building on that research, the report focused on helping federal agencies, federal managers and supervisors, and other stakeholders better understand how job characteristics and rewards can support employee motivation and encourage engagement and performance.


“What we tell supervisors is that their job is not just to supervise subordinates, but to empower the employees to do their job with dignity and with respect,” said Grundmann. “Trust, engagement, and the pride in their own work does not come from micromanagement – it comes from the contributions, decisions, ideas, the sweat, and seeing how your contributions contribute to a larger reality. We are all part of a much bigger picture.”


The keynote speaker also discussed a report directly related to the 2016 theme for National Women's History Month: "Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government." 

This year’s theme recognizes countless women who are often unrecognized and overlooked but have "shaped America's history and its future" through their skills, tenacity and leadership.

“We found some ambitions and achievements have been achieved for women in federal government,” said Grundmann, regarding her agency’s 2011 report to the President and the Congress of the United States, called, “Women in the Federal Government: Ambitions and Achievements”.

The report cited changes within the federal government, reflecting diminishing differences between women and men in important characteristics such as education and experience.

“That trend, combined with a continued interest in career advancement among women in the federal government, bodes well for future gains in the representation of women at the highest levels of pay and responsibility, including the Senior Executive Service,” according the report. “Much credit is also due to agency efforts to recruit and advance women, to reduce the incidence of prohibited discrimination, to provide greater flexibility in work arrangements, and to focus on contributions and skills—rather than on indirect and unreliable indicators of performance and dedication such as time spent in the office or irrelevant factors such as marital status and family responsibilities—when evaluating and promoting employees.”

The report’s executive summary continued.

“Still, progress toward full equality is not yet complete. Women remain less likely than men to be employed in high-paying occupations and supervisory positions. That reflects, in part, continuing occupational differences between women and men in the federal workforce and the broader civilian labor force. Women have made great strides in entering occupations such as physician and attorney, but remain relatively scarce in fields such as law enforcement, information technology, and engineering—fields important to the current and future Federal workforce. Also, even within a given occupation, women often have lower salaries than men, and those salary differences cannot be fully explained by differences in measurable factors such as experience and education.”

Actions that agencies and managers can take to further progress in the representation and advancement of women and increase fairness for all employees include:

• Provide continuing feedback and development to employees, so that employees understand and can develop the competencies and behaviors that are important to job success and career advancement;

• Improve the recruitment, selection, and development of supervisors. Enhanced supervisory effectiveness will create a cadre of supervisors who are better able to focus on results, support work/life balance, and ensure fairness in work assignment and other aspects of human resources management;

• Make informed and appropriate use of both internal and external sources of talent. When used appropriately, internal hiring can provide a “bridge” from technical, clerical, or blue-collar occupations to professional and administrative occupations, to the benefit of both agencies and employees. However, agencies should also recognize that internal and external talent pools can differ in ways that have significant implications for assessment, development, and advancement;

• Recognize, and avoid reliance on, stereotypes and assumptions in day-to-day human resources management. Agencies should consciously focus on ability and results, rather than surface characteristics and impressions, when assigning work, allocating developmental opportunities, and evaluating employee performance and potential;

• Remain vigilant against sex-based discrimination, including sexual harassment, and ensure that avenues for reporting and addressing such discrimination are accessible and trusted; and

• Maximize flexibility in work arrangements and job requirements. Flexible work arrangements can help agencies attract diverse pools of qualified applicants, retain employees, and sustain engagement without compromising teamwork and productivity. Conversely, unnecessary inflexibility in matters such as geographic mobility, work hours, and travel may result in the loss of highly capable applicants and employees who have life/family responsibilities and can find competing employers that are more accommodating.

For more information, the two U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board reports can be accessed on the web via the following links:

Federal Employee Engagement: The Motivating Potential of Job Characteristics and Rewards:  http://www.mspb.gov/netsearch/viewdocs.aspx?docnumber=780015&version=782964

Women in the Federal Government: Ambitions and Achievements: