Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting is Strongly Related to Staff Empowerment, Engagement, and Satisfaction

Sep 25, 2017 by Ilana Shapiro, Monalisa Salib Comments (4)

Ilana Shapiro, PhD, is a New Approaches Advisor and Monalisa Salib is an Organizational Learning and Research Manager on the USAID LEARN contract.

One of our key hypotheses for why collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) matters is that it bolsters employee engagement. The theory is that when we collaborate with colleagues and learn new things that improve how we design and implement programs, we feel more invigorated and generally happier at work. But is this really the case?

Our recent analysis demonstrates that for employees at USAID missions, CLA is strongly, positively, and significantly related to employee engagement, empowerment, satisfaction, and (as icing on the cake) perceived organizational effectiveness. You’re probably wondering - how did we figure this out?

We looked at 2016 data from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) for 62 USAID missions. For those unfamiliar with the FEVS, it is an annual survey of federal agencies that measures employee perceptions of whether, and to what extent, conditions characterizing successful organizations are present within their agencies (Office of Personnel Management (OPM), 2016). Employees respond to prompts indicating the extent to which they agree with statements, such as:

  • Managers support collaboration across work units to accomplish work objectives.
  • Employees in my work unit share job knowledge with each other.
  • I feel encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things.

We realized that these questions in particular, but others as well, included in the FEVS mapped to our collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) framework. The mapping is by no means perfect but did allow for the creation of a CLA composite measure that included relevant FEVS questions (see the figure below for how these questions map to the CLA framework).  

Figure 1: Questions from the FEVS mapped to the CLA framework

In addition, the FEVS survey organizes these and other questions into indices that measure organizational effectiveness, including employee empowerment, engagement, and satisfaction. With this data, we wondered if collaborating, learning, and adapting (as a holistic construct) had any relationship to these indicators.

We found that the relationships between CLA and employee empowerment, engagement, satisfaction, and perceived organizational effectiveness proved to be strong, positive, and significant. Missions where employees reported high levels of CLA also reported high levels of these indicators.

So why does this matter?

A growing body of evidence from both quantitative and qualitative studies recognizes engagement, empowerment, and satisfaction as critical to successful organizational performance. Engaged employees take pride in their work, are passionate about and energized by what they do, are committed to the organization, the mission, and their job, and are more likely to put forth extra effort to get the job done (Government Accountability Office (GAO), 2015). A growing body of research on both private- and public-sector organizations has found that increased levels of engagement can lead to better organizational performance including increased productivity and innovation, customer satisfaction, organizational growth, and higher profit margins (GAO, 2015; OPM, 2014).

In USAID terms, better organizational performance would mean the achievement of more effective and sustainable development programming.

And isn’t that why we’re all here?

The implications of this are potentially far-reaching. In addition to missions using CLA approaches to improve strategy, project, and activity design and implementation, CLA can also be seen as a leadership tool for creating more effective organizations where employees are more satisfied, engaged, and empowered. We are already seeing CLA being used to improve staff engagement in USAID missions, including Uganda and Senegal as well as in the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs.

For those interested in learning more about our methodology and additional findings, please see this brief and full report.


dratliff wrote:

I just wanted to note that USAID/Azerbaijan had one of the highest FEVS scores in the Agency in spite of an extremely difficult political operating environment. Since I've arrived I've found the Mission to be eager to learn about CLA and to incorporate it into our ongoing work. The Mission was already incredibly effective and ripe for an infusion of CLA. High FEVS scores are often a sign of great teamwork and staff empowerment, not to mention happy people!

So, anyone looking to go out and integrate CLA into new Missions might want to start with some of the ones with the highest FEVS scores!

posted 4 years ago
monalisa wrote:

That's great, David. Thanks for sharing!

posted 4 years ago
sylviav wrote:

Than you Ilana and Monalisa, an encouraging piece. You mentioned "A growing body of evidence from both quantitative and qualitative studies recognizes engagement, empowerment, and satisfaction as critical to successful organizational performance." There is more to that - as one could ask, why is this so? We are learning now a lot from neuroscience, and one of the things we are learning is that when we feel safe and trusting of one another (in a team, in a department or division), even if the outside environment is not conducive, then we release oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that opens up our prefrontal cortex which is where our ability lies to envision a better future, to have empathy and compassion, to listen to one another - and these are critical abilities for co-creation, sharing and discovering together. The opposite is when we operate in (metaphorically and literally) toxic environments. Then we are stressed and produce the neurotransmitter cortisol which creates mistrust, people retreating into their own corners, being protective and suspicious of others - this will produce the kinds of behaviors that will set us back. unfortunately there are many places where this is happening. Cortisol in one person produces cortisol in another, and since it has a very long shelf life (much longer than oxytocin), stress begets more stress, leaving us with permanently high levels of cortisol (and other stress related hormones). The good news is that we can shift things around quite quickly by creating structures/containers for dialogue. Things can change on a dime.

posted 4 years ago
ishapiro wrote:

Hi Sylvia.  Thank you for making this connection with some of the very relevant learnings from neuroscience research!  The neurochemical reactions you describe have important implications for team leadership and creating high-trust work environments that support collaborating, learning, adapting and engagement. USAID/ LEARN’s recently updated CLA Literature Review touches briefly on related research in psychology and neuroscience.  I really appreciate you sharing these insights and the opportunities for positive organizational change inherent in them.

posted 4 years ago