Interview with Robert Lavigna, author of “Engaging Government Employees”

By Ramy Bayyour

Ahead of his visit to Dubai in April this year to present at the FAHR International Forum, we caught up with Robert “Bob” Lavigna, Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of HR at the University of Wisconsin and author of the book Engaging Government Employees: Motivate and Inspire Your People to Achieve Superior Performance.

How is employee engagement defined in the context of public and semi-public organisations?

Bob: Employee engagement is defined as a heightened employee connection to work, the organization, the mission, or coworkers. Engaged employees believe that their organizations value them, and in return engaged employees are more likely to expend “discretionary effort” to deliver performance. Engagement transcends employee happiness or satisfaction. The latter is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for engagement.

Right, but how is it different from engaging employees in the private sector?

Bob: Managing in the public sector is different from managing in the private sector – and these factors affect how we approach employee engagement. These differences include organizational impacts that are often hard to measure, complicated, and rule-bound decision making as well as multiple external stakeholders with power and influence.  There also tends to be limited financial incentives to influence employee behavior as well as public visibility of government actions. Employee motivators are different as well, for example some employees are motivated by public service, which is lacking in the private sector.

Does cultural difference have an impact on the level of engagement in an organisation?

Bob: There is no one-size-fits-all solution to improving employee engagement. Individual public organizations need to assess their current level of employee engagement, and then act to maintain areas of strengths and improve areas of weakness. Taking action to improve engagement must incorporate considerations of cultural issues and differences. These cultural differences can result from organizational, local, regional or national differences cultures.

Where do you recommend the public sector start with their engagement roadmap?

Bob: This depends on where the individual organization is on the employee engagement continuum. For an organization starting at the beginning of the process , I suggest that leaders must make an explicit long-term, strategic  commitment to measuring and improving engagement. They should communicate this commitment, and the business case for engagement, throughout the organization to obtain the commitment of other leaders, managers and supervisors. They should involve rank-and-file employees and start conducting an employee engagement survey that is followed through by taking action on the survey results

What are the common challenges to engaging employees?

Bob: These tend to be around communicating the business case for engagement in a way that convinces both leaders and employees that engagement is critical for organizational success. It is also challenging to ensure the commitment and active participation of all leaders, managers and supervisors and to generate high response rates in engagement surveys.  It is then about taking genuine action and sustained action on survey results and sustaining engagement over the long term.

Why do you think delegates should attend your keynote session at the FAHR Forum in April?

Bob: My session will be based on the book Engaging Government Employees: Motivate and Inspire Your People to Achieve Superior Performance, which is the first book on engagement that focuses specifically on the challenges of improving engagement in the unique environment of government.  I will showcase the key drivers of employee engagement and what public sector organizations have done to improve engagement.  I will also share with delegates what role they can play as HR in improving engagement levels.  I very much look forward to the event.

The FAHR International Forum is organized by the Federal Authority of Government Human Resources and IIR Middle East.  It is held under the patronage of HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai. It features keynotes from HE Humaid Al Qatami, Minister of Education in the UAE. It hosts international keynotes from Mr Henry Jackson, President and CEO of SHRM, Lord Ian Blair, Former Commissioner of London’s Met Police as well as Robert Lavigna.  Click here to find out more.

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