Photographer: Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg

Federal employees and change: Measuring an organization’s readiness

Bloomberg Government regularly publishes insights, opinion and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision-makers. This column is written by Dr. Victoria Grady and Dr. Patrick McCreesh. This column is part four of a ten part series on change management and the federal government. Be the first to see future articles by signing up for Bloomberg Government’s weekly newsletter. 

As the presidential transition team continues its efforts, we are getting closer to the day when the new political leadership will meet its career bureaucratic counterparts.  Last week we focused on the challenge of leadership and change.  Now let’s look at federal employees and change.   Our team has conducted extensive research on how federal employees react to change.  Resistance to change is often considered so toxic it has the potential to end an agency’s ability to succeed through change.

We found that federal employees often demonstrate symptoms of organizational attachment that make it difficult to change.  In research on change management, many believe that the biggest impediment to change is the employee’s desire to change.  We agree and furthermore suggest that the resistance to change is often due to a positive attachment the employee has to something in the organization.  It can be a leader, a mission, an office, or even a red stapler.

Dr. Grady has defined six symptoms that represent organizational tendencies toward attachment that can complicate the ability of these organizations to change. We have applied these symptoms to federal agencies through the use of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) to yield a Federal Change Management Index.  Through the lens of attachment behavior, the index (FCMI) identifies those agencies that are ready and willing to change versus those agencies that might experience challenge with change.

The six symptoms for measuring an organization’s readiness are: motivation, productivity, morale, absenteeism, conflict and turnover. Collectively, the symptoms tell us whether an agency is ready or unready for change.

We have applied our approach to the 2015 FEVS study using representative questions from the survey that serve as a measure of the symptoms.  We used these findings to create a web-based application where leaders can see their agency’s challenges with change.  This application provides three different views of the data.

Federal Change Management Index Application

The first is an agency profile, an example is below for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).  The agency profile is based on the presence of the representative agency’s performance in all six symptom areas.

All Federal Agencies Across Symptoms

The second view represents how all of the agencies perform against each of the symptoms.  They are color-coded by department and the user can click on any one agency to see how they perform across the symptoms compared to all agencies.

Comparing Two Agencies on the Same Question

The third view of the data allows the user to compare any two agencies in the survey on any question in the study.  Additionally, this view provides the average response (by all agencies) to the question, as another point of comparison.

Collectively, this tool helps a new (or existing) leader understand the challenges that might be waiting for them in the agency they are about to enter.  When these leaders understand the symptoms challenging their agency, they can create a proactive approach to more appropriately sustain the team through this transition and beyond.