The agencies we reviewed undertook changes that represented a significant shift from their traditional operations and, as such, encountered organizational and cultural barriers that needed to be overcome as they sought to empower and involve employees. Some of the barriers included a lack of trust, resistance to change and a lack of buy-in, and implementation issues. Despite encountering these barriers, the employees and managers we met at each of the five agencies perceived benefits from the employee empowerment and involvement practices that their agencies had implemented. To address the barriers, the agencies used such strategies as open communication, a commitment to change, and providing performance feedback.
All of these efforts entailed cultural transformations, and therefore there was some natural resistance that took time and effort to overcome. Nevertheless, the experiences of these agencies demonstrate that organizations can make progress in addressing barriers to empower and involve their employees. The following are some examples of the barriers encountered and the strategies used to address them.
The agencies identified a lack of trust as a barrier they experienced in their efforts to empower and involve employees. A lack of trust can frustrate agency attempts to implement major changes in employees' day-to-day working environment. Throughout our review, managers, unions, and employees continuously emphasized the importance of trust in gaining acceptance for changes. For example, some employees feared for their job security as FAA's Logistics Center began to implement more business like operations. However, they told us that they learned to trust the Logistics Center's Director as they recognized the need for the changes.
Some employees were skeptical that managers would listen to their input for planning purposes. They were also concerned that performance data would be used to justify punitive actions, rather than to increase employees' understanding about the direction of the agency's performance. In addition, working in a more open environment requires employees to trust and help each other, which some employees said initially was a barrier to working as a team. Maintaining an open door policy that encouraged employees to share their views and demonstrating a vision and commitment to change were two approaches that agencies used to develop trust.
Another barrier that agencies experienced was resistance to change and a lack of buy-in. Employees and managers resisted making changes because they had to work in new and unfamiliar ways. Some employees found it difficult to transition from working under direct supervision to working on a team with little direct supervision. For example, according to FEMA officials, some team members continued to seek leadership and guidance from management, did not trust other team members, and were reluctant to speak out in the team environment until they eventually adjusted to working in a team environment.
According to officials from the five agencies, some managers found it difficult to operate in a new environment of more open communication and feedback. Some FEMA managers and supervisors were reluctant to allow employees to have delegated authorities in areas such as budgeting, procurement, and time and attendance report approval. At FAA's Aeronautical Center, some employees with contracting responsibilities were initially uncomfortable exercising newly delegated procurement authority to purchase goods or services up to a certain dollar amount without supervisory approval. The employees said that they gained confidence as they became more experienced in exercising the new authority, and some of the employees and managers who initially resisted changes adjusted to them gradually over time. In some cases, the offices we visited made managerial and supervisory changes when individuals were unable to adjust to a more open work environment.
A lack of buy-in resulted in some employees and managers being reluctant to fully participate in training. They tended to view the changes being made as another "flavor-of-the-month" initiative. Thus, they were not as open to receiving new information or adopting new ways of working. IRS provided an example of a solution to this barrier. To encourage managers to buy into team concept training, IRS has decided to train section chiefs who will then train employees in their work units.
Implementation issues, such as workload demands and performance incentive issues, also presented barriers to change. Although employees generally appreciated the changes made to work in a team environment, high workload demands affected some team members' ability to exercise their delegated authority. VBA, for example, has a large, and growing, backlog of compensation and pension claims.  Although team members had the authority to set their schedules and determine their day-today work priorities, heavy workload demands prevented them from being able to plan and manage their work. Some of VBA's decision review officers also told us that their ability to exercise their delegated authorities had been limited by the claims-processing backlogs.
Another implementation issue that affected teams involved the incentives that agencies provided to teams to encourage performance. For example, some employees said that working on teams was demotivating when poor performers obtained an equal share of team rewards. Some employees and managers said that not enough money was available for rewarding employees and teams that met their goals and objectives. Such issues were commonly addressed in team meetings and in individual performance feedback.
The timing of training was another implementation issue that agencies cited as a barrier. For example, some team members told us that it would have been helpful if they had received training before being reorganized into teams, rather than after. Because training was not provided prior to moving to a team environment, the teams were immediately faced with the need for team members to take time off of the front lines for training and skill building. Providing training at the appropriate time for an employee can achieve better results.
The accurate and timely processing of compensation and pension claims is one of the major management challenges we have identified at the Department of Veterans Affairs. See Major Management Challenges and Program Risks: Department of Veterans Affairs (GAO-01-255, Jan. 2001).