A third of public service executives have mentally 'checked out,' study suggests

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07/15/2015

BY KATHRYN MAY, OTTAWA CITIZEN JULY 14, 2015

Almost one-third of Canada’s federal executives, who are expected to lead the modernization of the public service, are actively disengaged or have “mentally checked out,” says a report by the association representing executives.

The Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada (APEX) commissioned a white paper to examine what makes executives committed to the job, after its 2012 health study indicated that the level of disengagement among executives was on the rise and higher than the average in the private sector.

The survey found 68 per cent — slightly more than two-thirds — are engaged but the level of engagement has fallen over the years. “Engagement” is an indicator of how well a person is connecting with their work and consequently how able that person is to deal with the demands of the job.

“Reform of the public service will require the full commitment and engagement of executives,” said Lisanne Lacroix, APEX’s chief executive officer. “The degree to which they rise to the challenge will depend, in large part, on their state of health, which will largely be determined by the quality of the work environment.”

The engagement paper is among three white papers APEX has commissioned since the association’s health and work surveys revealed issues in the workplace that are affecting the productivity, performance and loyalty of the 6,400 executives in the public service.

We wanted to not simply raise problem areas but do our part to offer solutions that can be implemented at the individual, team and organizational levels,” said Lacroix.

The white paper, written by leadership consultant Craig Dowden, provided an overview of the major research into engagement, as well as ways to solve and prevent disengagement.

The findings will be part of a compendium of “best practices” for a joint union-management task force that’s trying to understand what’s making the public service an unhealthy workplace. APEX has a seat on that task force, whose first report is expected in September.

Gallup estimates disengaged employees cost U.S. employers up to $550 billion a year. The disengaged tend to kill time and count the days to their next holiday or retirement. They no longer care if the organization meets its goals and priorities.

Dowden said research shows the unhappiness of the disengaged can spread and have a damaging impact on colleagues. They can derail a project or reforms by not putting in effort, or dismissing a change as “I’ve seen this all before.” This could be particularly problematic for public servants who have lived through many attempts at reforming the workplace.

Dowden said they are also at risk of “presenteeism”: physically going to the office but having mentally checked out. Studies have shown that even engaged employees lose about 7.6 days a year to presenteeism — but the disengaged lose twice that.

Dowden said the problem is that “actively disengaged” employees aren’t just unhappy at work but often act out their unhappiness by working against the organization that employs them.

“Given the importance of executives in bringing out the best out of their teams, one can easily see how actively disengaged leaders represent a major problem,” he said.

APEX’s survey found half of all executives think about leaving their job once a month or more frequently, another sign of disengagement. They are also more likely to move when faced with “positive pulls” such as better opportunities elsewhere, rather than negative “pushes” such as undesirable working conditions.

Dowden said the key drivers for engaged employees include making progress, meaningful work or purpose, autonomy in what they do, and being permitted to use their personal strengths.

A Harvard study that tracked hundreds of knowledge workers found that making progress was the top contributor to performance. Motivation plummeted if they felt like they were spinning their wheels or hitting roadblocks in moving their work forward.

Studies show those who do whatever they can to remove obstacles for employees have highly motivated staff — a phenomenon whose importance is typically underestimated by leaders, according to Dowden.

Dowden said people want to feel like they are making a meaningful contribution and, as long as they are fairly paid, will go the extra mile. The public service historically attracted people who wanted to make a difference, so they came to the job with a strong sense of purpose.

“Leaders and executives in an organization very much want to live their values and when they perceive gaps … or disconnect between values and purpose, that can be incredibly challenging to work through.”

Dowden said autonomy is another key driver of engagement and motivation. In the majority of organizations, executives have the most autonomy, with more control the higher up the chain they move. APEX’s surveys, however, show executives often feel they have little authority and are micromanaged. Surveys found executives feel this lack of control regardless of level, whether Ex 1 or Ex 5.

Autonomy comes almost entirely from the culture created by the direct supervisor. Those who don’t micro-manage and who give workers the freedom to work on projects in the way that suits them — while still being accountable — get the best results.

There are two kinds of micromanagers. The perfectionist — à la Steve Jobs — who have high standards and like control over the projects for which they are responsible.

The more toxic micromanager seems to have a need for people to know who is charge, gives little autonomy to direct reports, doesn’t accept feedback and gets involved in the minutiae of a project.

The 2014 public service survey gives mixed messages on this front. Generally, employees — including 84 per cent of executives — are satisfied with their direct supervisors and feel they can count on them. They aren’t as positive about senior management, especially when it comes to making “timely and effective” decisions and ensuring critical information flows down to staff.

But Dowden said so much about leadership and management comes down to trust.

The Conservatives have made little secret of their distrust of the public service. Experts, including the Public Policy Forum, have cited the “trust gap” between politicians and public servants as the biggest challenge facing the next generation of leaders.

APEX has also flagged its concern about this relationship and the need to improve “understanding” between the two.

The lack of trust, coupled with the concentration of power and decision-making in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office, has intensified the lack of control and authority many executives complain about today.