Ongoing austerity, an ageing workforce, the social care funding ‘crisis’, uncertainty over the outcome of a Brexit deal – all present enormous challenges for councils in the coming years. That’s why it is crucial for them to have a high-performing workforce that can respond to these new demands – and why councils need greater insight into high performance and engagement and how to sustain them in turbulent times.
A high-quality employment deal includes a balanced, reciprocal exchange of good-quality contributions. Our major research on local government, which studied the employment deal in a number of councils, found several ‘super themes’ that characterise life as a high-performing and engaged public sector employee:
- Psychological contract: a trusting relationship with a line manager, which helps build an open and dialogue-centred working environment. Employees feel motivated and confident to express differing viewpoints.
- Perceived organisational support: a supportive organisational culture is one that permits employees to share innovative ideas, and to critique current working arrangements without fear of any form of retribution.
- Conversational practice: encouraging employee voice involves engaging in dialogue about factors that might act as obstacles to performance.
- Tensions and pressure: workplace tensions measure how well employees respond to conflicting demands, such as having to deliver more with less or pursuing entrepreneurial behaviours while bureaucracy and compliance hold you back.
There were dramatic statistical differences between highly engaged and highly disengaged groups of employees. The most engaged were working in an open and blame-free culture; were being consulted about changes; were actively involved in implementing structures for transformation; had high levels of role autonomy; felt confident about speaking honestly; and clearly understood how their objectives related to career objectives.
Meanwhile, the most highly disengaged suffered an absence of employee voice; experienced a lack of encouragement from the leadership team to inspire employees; perceived low levels of trust and support in line managers; had a low perception of an open and blame-free culture; and experienced poor levels of job control.
So how do you achieve sustainable high performance and engagement levels? Our research identified line managers as being critical actors in the practice of ‘psychological safety’ – the freedom to explicitly surface tensions, with good intent, in the knowledge that this is seen as an opportunity to improve.
But line managers do not function in a vacuum. They and their colleagues need to be encouraged and inspired by the upper echelons of the organisation. This involves creating supportive cultural practices across all levels, to ensure employee voice is sought and fostered.
Sensitivity to employee needs when managing change is also crucial. Austerity has created an increasingly stressful working environment, and over the years we have received countless comments despairing at the introduction of new systems and policies without the opinions of the workforce being sought. It is clearly necessary to not only consult but actively involve employees in change initiatives. Providing support in the form of frequent communication, clarity and guidance on new policies and where employees stand can greatly help to reduce tension resulting from organisational restructures.
One final aspect of dealing with organisational change includes rethinking the psychological contract. What can reasonably be offered, and what kinds of things can no longer be offered? These should then be articulated to all staff, reducing any confusion and resentment that might arise.
Fatima Elmi is research and development analyst at Martin Reddington Associates