It’s one thing to say you need trust in order to manage effectively, it’s another to actually spend the time necessary to engage your employees and build a relationship based on trust.
“To me, trust is sort of a symptom of whether or not employee engagement exists,” said Bob Tobias, director of the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation at The American University. “It’s not possible… to have employee engagement without trust, and the data shows that there’s a significant gap between the GS-15s and above, and those they are seeking to engage.”
He said what makes the disconnect between upper management and the lower ranks in public service so disconcerting is the impact it has on the ability of the agency as a whole to accomplish its mission. “We know that employee engagement is critical to increased agency efficiency, effectiveness and productivity,” Tobias said.
Trust is linked to the intellectual and emotional connections of the federal workforce and both must be addressed in order to have successful engagement.
“One aspect of trust I would describe as ‘reliability based trust,’ which means, ‘You know me well enough that when certain events occur, you know how I’m going to behave,'” Tobias said. “‘It might be slightly aborational, but you know how I’m going to behave and you don’t take it personally.’ So, you understand who I am.”
This type of “intellectual trust” is not enough to create true engagement. You still need to appeal to “emotional” or “vulnerability-based trust,” which involves exposing a vulnerability to the person you’re trying to engage.
As an example, Tobias described a manager who admits that she doesn’t know the answer to an employee’s question and asks instead for their input.
Subject-matter expertise vs. leadership skills
Another contributing factor to the disconnect between members of the Senior Executive Service and the people they manage is the process by which managers rise through the upper ranks.
“Jobs are described in terms of subject-matter expertise at the GS-15 and the SES level rather than what are my leadership skills and do I apply those skills in a way that I would say create an environment where those I lead are willing to give me their discretionary energy to accomplish my goals and objectives,” Tobias said.
It also becomes more difficult for managers to maintain the levels of trust they have with their employees the higher they ascend on the leadership track.
“The distance grows because they’re spending all of their time on subject-matter expertise and there’s no time left to create connections with those they lead,” he said. “There’s no time to have conversations. There’s no time to develop relationships.”
This is problematic, according to Tobias, because studies have shown that the single most important behavior of an SES member might exhibit in order to increase his or her evaluation is the amount of time they spend in employee development.
“So, if I spend time developing you, by definition, I’m spending time getting to know who you are,” he said. “I’m spending time understanding what your goals and objectives are, and I’m spending time helping you get to where you want to be. Now if I spend that time, how hard are you going to work for me?”
In times of sequestration, furloughs and pay freezes, maintaining employee engagement is especially crucial for leaders. The first step, according to Tobias, is being authentic in how you communicate.
“As a leader, I have a responsibility to be authentic,” he said. “To me, what that means is that I have the responsibility at least to be transparent about what I know. So, I’ve seen some agencies where the leaders have never even addressed the issue of the impact of sequestration and furloughs in a personal way or in a way that would connect with those they lead. They issue announcements that say,’Well, the budget’s bad, we’re going to have to furlough you for 13 days.’ I would say that’s not an empathic message, and as a result, distance grows between leaders and employees when I’m not authentic about what I know and how it impacts you as someone that I’m trying to lead. I think that’s an element of leadership skill, but more importantly, personal development that’s missing in some leaders in the federal government.”
In such a situation the manager needs not only to inform his or her staff about sequestration or furloughs, but also express how those issues impact management as well.
“I have to describe the impact on me, which in turn gives me credibility and authenticity to describe the impact on you as I see it,” Tobias said.
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-9 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.