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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Conversation Starter

The future is not looking bright for the National Security Personnel System, much to the delight of many disgruntled participants in the Defense Department's pay and performance management program. The Pentagon has halted expansion of NSPS pending a review by the Obama administration -- an omen of likely doom. The program is controversial because it revamps the process for annual salary increases, tying them more closely to annual performance appraisals rather than to routine progression up the government pay scale. Employees have little trust that merit will win out over favoritism in a salary system that relies more on their managers' discretion. That distrust shows that many Defense Department employees -- along with those of nearly every large organization -- view the annual performance review process with contempt. And it indicates that employees often think they cannot count on their bosses to make reasonable judgments about the quality of their work and their contributions to the organization. While NSPS is probably headed for the chopping block, one aspect of the program might be worth preserving. The system's designers tried to encourage managers and employees to use the annual review process as a time for honest and open discussions about managers' expectations and employees' ability to meet them. Regardless of which performance management system is in place, every agency should strive to make annual reviews a time of meaningful conversation between bosses and subordinates. NSPS requires employees and supervisors to agree to job objectives -- the work that is expected. For each goal, they have to identify contributing factors such as technical proficiency or teamwork. After they agree to an annual performance plan based on those objectives and contributing factors, employees and bosses are supposed to meet periodically during the year to make adjustments as circumstances change. At the end of that time, employees write self-assessments. Supervisors then meet with employees to discuss how the year went. Such conversations should be the defining moments of bosses' relationships with their employees. Bosses must communicate what they expect and employees have to make sure they understand their expectations. Employees must tell their bosses how things are going and bosses must tell their employees when expectations change. When it comes time for annual reviews, there should be no surprises. They can take stock together and prepare for the coming year. Self-assessments and annual reviews really should be conversation starters. Rather than ends in themselves, they should provide a framework for people to talk about expectations, performance and future goals. Kathryn Troutman, a federal career adviser, has written a book about the Defense Department's evaluation system called Writing Your NSPS Self-Assessment. Troutman advises employees to enter performance reviews with some questions:
  • What do you think I do well and why?
  • My job responsibilities have changed and it appears to be a permanent change; should we update my position description or job objectives?
  • I have a list of accomplishments. Would you look at it and see if I have matched them well to the job objectives?
Troutman's book is aimed at employees in NSPS. But conversation starters for managers mirror good employee questions. A manager could ask, "Do you understand how your position advances the mission of the organization?" Or, "Have I communicated my expectations clearly?"

No matter the human resources system, such questions and the resulting conversations should improve trust between managers and employees and keep the focus on performance, not pay.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.


Brian Friel is founder of One Nation Analytics, an independent research, analytics and consulting firm for the federal market.

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