Emotionally Engaged Civil Servants: Exploring the Role of Emotional Intelligence in the Public Sector
The issue of employee engagement has received much attention in the public administration literature over recent years. Scholars have demonstrated the positive impact of civil servants’ engagement on desirable work outcomes, such as task performance (Rich, Lepine and Crawford, 2010) and job satisfaction (Saks, 2006), as well as a negative relationship with undesirable outcomes, such as turnover intentions (Schaufeli and Bakker, 2004). Such insights have led various governments to lead employee engagement initiatives, such as the administrative reform led by the US Office of Personnel Management. Moreover, scholars have begun to look for potential antecedents of employees’ engagement, in an attempt to devise tools and practices that may augment civil servants’ engagement.
July, 17 2020 | Zehavit Levitats, Eran Vigoda-Gadot & Dana R. Vashdi
The research project
As part of these research initiatives, we conducted a two-study research project aimed at examining the effect of employees’ and their managers’ emotional intelligence on employees’ public sector engagement. Unlike previous work in the PA literature, we defined the term public sector engagement (PSE) as an overarching composite construct comprised of three dimensions of engagement, as follows: social responsibility (SR), representing engagement towards the social community; work engagement (WE), representing engagement towards the organization, and organizational citizenship behaviors directed at individuals (OCBI), representing engagement towards the individuals with whom civil servants interact.
Our research model included two main hypotheses. The first hypothesis was that civil servants’ own emotional intelligence has a direct and positive causal effect on each of the three dimensions of their public sector engagement. Our second hypothesis was that managers’ emotional intelligence moderates the relationship between their subordinates’ own emotional intelligence and their three dimensions of PSE, such that the effect of employees’ EI will be stronger among subordinates of high EI managers than among subordinates of managers with lower EI.
The research project was carried out in two stages. In study 1, we conducted a field experiment, intended to substantiate the positive impact of civil servants’ EI on PSE (H1). We used a sample of 66 civil servants, working in one of three public administration organizations in Israel: the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and a division within one of the largest municipalities in Israel. Participants of the experimental group (n=33) participated in an EI training program over the course of six weeks, whereas the control group (n=33) received no such training. In study 2, a cross-sectional study using a survey was employed to test the hypothesized moderation effect of managers’ EI on the relationship between their subordinates’ EI and PSE (H2). We used a sample of 414 employees and their managers, working in the same three public administration organizations used in the first study.
The findings of our first study revealed a direct and positive effect of civil servants’ own emotional intelligence on both their social responsibility and work engagement, such that participants of the experimental group, but not the control group, showed an increased level of SR and WE, following their emotional intelligence training. As for OCBI, we found the construct to be positively related to employees’ emotional intelligence, but we did not find support for a direct causal effect of emotional intelligence, as the participants of the experimental group did not show a significant increase in their OCBI following the EI training.
The findings of our second study support the hypothesized moderation effect of managers’ EI on the relationship between an employee’s EI and SR, as well as WE. More specifically, it was found that social responsibility and work engagement are highest among civil servants who not only demonstrate high emotional intelligence themselves but are also subordinates of highly emotionally intelligent managers. In fact, in the case of social responsibility, the construct’s positive relationship with employees’ EI was significant only for employees whose managers’ EI was either high or medium, but not for employees whose supervisors demonstrate low emotional intelligence. In the case of OCBI, no such moderation effect was found.
What is it about emotional intelligence that helps increase civil servants’ engagement?
Emotional intelligence (EI) is “the ability to perceive accurately, appraise, and express emotion; the ability to access and/or generate feelings when they facilitate thought; the ability to understand emotion and emotional knowledge; and the ability to regulate emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth” (Mayer and Salovey, 1990, p.10). Such an ability may be viewed, in line with the job demands-resources model (JD-R model: Bakker, 2011; Bakker and Demerouti, 2017), as a resource.
The JD-R model, which is often used to theoretically explain work engagement in organizations, assumes that all work conditions can be classified into one of two categories: job demands and job resources. Job demands are physical, psychological, social, or organizational aspects of the job that require sustained physical and/or psychological effort and entail physiological and/or psychological costs (Demerouti et al., 2001); whereas job resources are aspects of the job that are functional in achieving work goals as well as reducing job demands and their associated costs. The model assumes that demands and resources trigger two opposite psychological processes that are the basis of work engagement, such that engagement is expected to be high when resources are high and demands are low, and vice versa. Moreover, it distinguishes between two types of resources—job resources and personal resources. Unlike job resources, which are aspects of the job, personal resources are the beliefs people hold regarding how much control they have over their environment (Bakker and Demerouti, 2017).
Employees’ own EI may be perceived as personal resources. Individuals high in EI perceive themselves as having the ability to: (a) understand their deep emotions and express them naturally, such that they can sense and acknowledge their emotions well before most people; (b) perceive and understand the emotions of people around them, enabling them to be much more sensitive to the feelings and emotions of others and read their minds; (c) regulate their emotions in a manner that allows rapid recovery from psychological distress; and (d) use their emotions by directing them towards constructive activities and personal performance (Law, Wong and Song, 2004). Equipped with such abilities, high EI employees are likely to believe they have control over their work environment and show higher levels of self-efficacy (Gürol, Özercan and Yalçın, 2010), which is confidence in one’s ability to harness the resources needed to meet job demands (Bandura, 1977).
Managers’ emotional intelligence, on the other hand, acts as a job resource when it is high and as a job demand when it is low. More specifically, the ability of high EI managers to effectively manage their own and others’ emotions, to create a positive working environment for their followers (Momeni, 2009), and to attentively adjust their management style to their employees’ needs, is a job resource for their employees. In the presence of such high job resources, employees are able to utilize their own emotional resources to the benefit of higher engagement, rather than having to utilize them to deal with organizational demands. Thus, the effect of employees’ own EI on social responsibility and work engagement is intensified. Managers low on EI, on the other hand, become the cause of additional job demands as they are not attuned to their employees’ needs. Thus, employees are forced to divert their emotional resources to combat the job demands created by their managers, to the extent that the positive effect of their own EI on their social responsibility and work engagement is weakened and even muted.
Key takeaways for public administration HR practices
The study’s findings indicate that the emotional intelligence of civil servants and their public managers makes a difference to the work experience of employees, consequently effecting their engagement. Thus, HR practitioners and policy setters on matters related to personnel management should encourage the following:
- Utilize emotional intelligence as a criterion in the recruitment and selection processes of employees, to increase the likelihood of civil servants’ enhanced public sector engagement.
- Implement on-the-job EI training sessions by professionals, as a means to enhance civil servants’ engagement and its desirable work outcomes.
- Employ emotional intelligence as a decisive factor in the promotion processes of employees and managers, to increase the availability of high emotional resources within the organization.
Zehavit Levitats is a Postdoctoral Research Affiliate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, at Yale University. Her detailed research project was performed as part of her doctoral studies at the School of Political Science in the University of Haifa. Her research interests include organizational behavior and human resource management in public administration; engagement and burnout; and employees’ health and wellbeing. She has published research in leading scholarly journals, such as Public Administration Review and Public Administration. Eran Vigoda-Gadot is a Professor of Public Administration and Management, Political Science and Governance. He founded the Center for Public Management and Policy (CPMP) at the School of Political Science, University of Haifa. For the past three years he has been the Dean of the Herta & Paul Amir Faculty of Social Sciences, at the University of Haifa. Dana R. Vashdi is an Associate Professor in the Division of Public Administration and Policy at the University of Haifa, Israel. She received her PhD in industrial psychology from the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on teamwork and specifically on learning and innovation in teams. She also investigates factors influencing public employee well-being. She has published research in leading scholarly journals, such as Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Applied Psychology and Public Administration Review.
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