Why public sector managers can do more

Business Direction

By Carmel Ackerly*

The talents and potential of government sector managers are not being used to full advantage according to a major survey research report we have completed on employee engagement.

The research, which compares the views of public and private sector managers about how ‘connected’ they feel to their organisation reveals that too many professional staff in the government sector are disengaged.

Our survey involved the participation of 2,223 people including CEOs and their equivalent positions as well as all management ranks and aspiring managers and technical specialist staff. Participants from the government sector were the single largest audience segment comprising 17 per cent of the total participants. Other sectors involved in the survey included manufacturing (8 per cent); health/community services (7 per cent); IT/Communication services (7 per cent); Utilities (6 per cent); and Banking (4 per cent).

The survey data shows that public service personnel trail their private sector counterparts on their levels of employee engagement and are more likely to voice concerns about management standards and practices.

Yet, despite government managers’ comparative unease about their workplace, they are much happier about their pay and benefits than are managers in the private sector.

Seventy-two per cent of government sector participants in the survey said their organisation provided ‘adequate salary and employee benefits’. This compares to just 32 per cent of private sector managers who said their salary and employee benefits are adequate.

Government sector managers are also more likely to say they plan to stay with their current employer than do non-government sector managers. Sixty-one per cent of managers in government said they plan to remain with their employer compared to just 43 per cent in the private sector. These survey findings tell us that despite some misgivings about their workplace, government sector managers are – for the most part – not planning to leave the public service.

Indeed, the response data shows that government managers believe the public sector provides the greatest career opportunities and employment prospects of any industry sector. Thirty-six per cent of public service managers named “Government administration” as the number one sector for career and employment prospects ahead of “Consulting/Professional” (34 per cent), “Construction/Mining” (30 per cent) and “IT/Communication services”(24 per cent).

In contrast, private sector participants in the survey rated “Government administration” well down the list of preferred industry sectors for career and employment prospects. It was placed equal tenth on the list at nine per cent. Top ratings went to “Construction/Mining” (33 per cent),
“IT/Communication Services” (27 per cent), and “Consulting/Professional Services” (24 per cent).

The implication of this data is that retention of skilled managers is not the challenge for the government sector that it is for private sector firms. Whilst on the surface that sounds positive, the reality is that if public sector management is not sufficiently engaged and committed to fulfilling organisational goals – as our survey data indicates they are not- then some managers are simply ‘going through the motions’. And that outcome is not good for the self-esteem and wellbeing of the managers concerned, nor the people they lead and manage.

Overall, the survey findings have negative consequences for both public and private sector organisations.  Let’s look at some specific findings.
A most alarming discovery is the number of people who believe their manager helps them perform at their best is quite low – just 58 per cent of government sector participants and 62 per cent of those in the private sector.

This finding – perhaps more so than any other in the survey highlights the scope for improvement at a time when Australian workplaces are focused on productivity advancements.

In Australia, we pay a lot of lip service to the notion that ‘employees are an organisation’s greatest asset’.  But how many organisations really believe it and more importantly, act on it?

The survey is a reminder that employee engagement should be on the list of key performance indicators for managers – regardless of what sector they work in. That will enable organisations to hold managers to account for how they communicate, motivate and lead their team members.

When we compare the response data of public and private sector management, we see those in the public sector are much more critical of their senior management’s performance in cultivating a good organisational culture.  Just 42 per cent of government managers agreed that senior management creates a positive workplace culture compared to 50 per cent of private sector survey participants.

From the perspectives of both private and government sectors, the research data on senior management’s failure to cultivate a workplace culture in which people feel they can perform at their maximum capacity is a cause for real concern.

The factors contributing to this poor performance on workplace culture are many as our survey data shows.

The most alarming factor is the extremely poor level of two way communication between senior and middle management.  Just 37 per cent of those government personnel surveyed said two-way communication flow between senior and middle management levels is “effective” or “very effective”. Only six per cent of those surveyed said it is “very effective”.

However, the challenges of improving what are atrocious internal communication standards are not restricted to the public sector –our survey data reveals that standards are almost as bad in private enterprise. Just 40 per cent of those in the private sector rate two-way communication flow between senior and middle management as “effective” or “very effective” and of that tally, only nine per cent said it is “very effective”.

Effective communication skills should be a core asset of any aspiring or experienced manager or leader. Without such skills it is simply impossible for a manager to connect with those people who report directly to them. I think too many managers – in both the private and public sectors – find excuses to avoid having difficult conversations with their direct reports.

These difficult conversations with employees cover a variety of topics such as ‘one on one’ discussions about poor performance, or outlining how their team can contribute to organisational goals or talking about career development pathways. Most managers are fine with the ‘easy conversations’ in which they congratulate an employee for a job well done but organisations need more from their managers than the ability to deliver good news.

Managers need to get out of their corner office and be seen around the corridors or on the shop floor and to talk to people and absorb what they hear. If managers feel they don’t have the skills to do that, then they need to develop those skills – and quickly.

The survey reveals that public sector managers are less likely to say they respect their manager than their counterparts in the private sector (71 per cent versus 77 per cent). They are also slightly less likely to say their manager is enthusiastic (76 per cent versus 79 per cent).

Little surprise then that we find government managers are much more unlikely to say their current role is interesting (61 per cent versus 70 per cent) and much less likely to believe that their employer appreciates them (46 per cent versus 56 per cent). Government managers are also six per cent more inclined to say that they feel “disengaged” than those in private enterprise.

Our survey uncovered some very significant findings on the relevance of a mission and values statement to organisational performance. An overwhelming majority of respondents in both sectors know what their organisation’s mission and values statement is (76 per cent of government managers and 75 per cent of managers in private sector).

However, we find there’s a big difference between the sectors on whether the mission and values are reflected in the way their organisation operates. Only 56 per cent of government managers said their organisation ‘walks the talk’ on mission and values compared to 65 per cent of private sector managers.

When we asked survey participants to list the top two factors to boost employee engagement levels, managers in both sectors named “being valued and understood” and “a job that has a real purpose”. However, government managers place a much stronger emphasis on these factors than do private sector managers. Here’s the data: “being valued and understood” (58 per cent versus 50 per cent) and “a job that has a real purpose” (41 per cent versus 28 per cent).

For the public sector, the implications of this survey research is that management personnel have the potential to play a much more significant role in boosting organisational performance by more effectively engaging with their direct reports.

To achieve this, government managers need to articulate to employees the value and purpose of their respective roles in a way that boosts the enthusiasm and commitment of staff. That requires the manager to be able to contextualise the employee’s contribution to organisational goals.

Further, for managers to boost an employee’s sense that their job has a real purpose, they need to fully understand what that person’s roles and responsibilities are and to work co-operatively with them to correct any performance gaps.

Of course, relevant to all these outcomes is that managers need to have the capabilities and the confidence to execute these tasks appropriately. Managers should conduct a self-assessment of any skills gaps they may have and speak to their own managers about what training is needed to fill-in any gaps identified.

*Carmel Ackerly is the CEO of the Australian Institute of Management VT.  Ms Ackerly has extensive management experience in the private and public sectors.  Ms Ackerly is a Certified Practising Accountant and holds a Masters of Management Degree from the Norwegian Business School. She also has a Graduate Diploma of Education and Training.

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