Building Morale and Engaging the Public: Whose Job Is It Anyway?

If you talk to school employees as we do in our communication audit process, you often will get an earful about low morale and how employees feel under-appreciated in today’s education-bashing climate. Even when leaders ask employees for their opinions on workplace matters, staff sometimes feel that nobody listens to them. They see certain brands of engagement as “window dressing” that leaders use so they can check off a requirement —  that they engaged staff members about an issue.

NSPRA members are well aware of this problem; many have done a good job of interacting with staff and building internal efforts to authentically engage people at various levels. Now NSPRA has created a project team to work on possible engagement solutions to boost morale in schools and school districts across North America. If all goes well, we hope to publish a new resource for you by this summer. (More on this a bit later.)

The Corporate World Also Grapples with Employee Engagement

We’ve learned that corporations are dealing with their own low morale and employee engagement issues. The Gallup organization has completed helpful research on this issue that asked questions like:

  • Who influences the employee engagement efforts and practices?
  • Is the major influencer at the executive level? (Superintendents and other central office leaders, in our case.)
  • Is it the local level manager? (Principals, in our case.)
  • What part does the individual style of each employee play in engagement practices?

According to an article by Jim Harter, chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing for Gallup’s workplace management practice, Gallup’s findings revealed that the primary determinant of an engaging and high-performing workplace is the manager. Although wide variation in most organizations occurs across teams and business units, he notes that people leave managers more than companies.

Gallup has also reported that as much as 70% of the variance in the employee engagement of teams can be traced back to the influence of the manager — through the manager’s engagement, behaviors as observed by team members, and the natural wiring of managers. In our organizations, that means we are primarily talking about principals as our managers.

Superintendents Also Make a Difference

According to Gallup, when engagement is based on perceptions of the overall organization, it is likely that there is a strong association between perceptions of the CEO and perceptions of the overall company. In a study of 190 organizations, Gallup found that executive leaders influence front-line employee engagement both indirectly and directly. They affect engagement primarily indirectly, through their influence on people they manage themselves, and directly through specific performance management elements, including clear expectations, discussions of progress and a mission or purpose that people can identify with. (Another Gallup resource.)

The Gallup findings indicate that when executive teams are highly engaged, the organization’s managers are 39% more likely to be engaged. When managers are highly engaged, employees are 59% more likely to be engaged. As such, at each level within the organization, the local manager or leader has the ultimate influence over how to communicate expectations, whether employees have a chance to do what they do best, whether individuals have opportunities to develop and whether people are able to see how their work connects to the organization’s overall mission or purpose.

Anyone who has worked in different schools or districts knows that the leader of the system and the school sets the tone for engagement. Some leaders embrace it, while others, not so much! Transforming these leaders or finding new ones committed to engagement is a good place to start in building morale in your schools.

Engagement Resources for Now and the Future

  • Gallup offers research and insight and is one of the leading organizations on employee motivation and performance. (
  • NSPRA has just co-published two new resources based on the real-world experiences of an NSPRA Past President Kathy Leslie, APR, and her colleague Judy Taccogna. Entitled The Politics of Authentic Engagement, their book and its accompanying handbook are great investments with practical insight into authentic engagement for your schools. Learn more and purchase each resource at
  • As mentioned earlier, NSPRA is collecting and assessing the engagement and morale-building programs offered in today’s schools. The NSPRA team is now in its research gathering stage, so if you want your program to possibly become part of this new, exciting resource, here’s how.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director

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