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

Managers Are Missing Out On The Most Important Part Of Personality Tests

At Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, every new employee takes the Myers-Briggs personality test, among others. The results are shared with everyone else at the firm, on a “baseball card” documenting each person’s strengths, weaknesses, and dispositions.

When I was getting to know my colleagues during the year I worked there, we would exchange Myers-Briggs acronyms before almost anything else—a replacement for typical office small-talk. It was strange, and thrilling.

I was proud to be an “ENTJ” (the Myers-Briggs acronym for Extraversion, Intuition, Thinking, and Judgment). At their best, ENTJs are bold, unemotional, and outspoken—traits that helped me navigate Bridgewater’s culture of radical transparency and critical feedback. ENTJs also can be arrogant, but they do get stuff done.

But telling people I was an ENTJ, or learning that my desk mate was my foil (an “ISFP”: Introvert, Sensing, Feeling, Perception), meant little. What mattered was the conversation that followed.

Just after stating our acronym, we’d usually begin qualifying it. “I’m an extrovert, but I actually prefer to spend a lot of time alone.” “I’m ‘Thinking’ over ‘Feeling,’ but I actually get pretty offended by critiques.” “I like seeing the forest...

To Give Better Feedback, You Must Fully Understand the Agony of Receiving It

Smart people love talking about how to give feedback. But not many talk about how to receive it.

No matter how profoundly we might embrace concepts like radical transparency, hearing “Your presentation missed the mark,” or worse, is never a comfortable moment.

As animals wired for self-defense, our knee-jerk reaction is to reject hard feedback. And then we might go through something resembling the five stages of grief. Anger (“He’s crazy, my presentation rocked!”) spirals into denial (“Who is he to speak, his emails are gibberish!”) and then perhaps some bargaining (“Oh god, he’s right; please don’t let me get fired tomorrow”) followed by some wallowing if not actual depression.

The fifth and final stage, of course, is acceptance, and there’s a reason it takes us so long to get there.

Harvard Law School lecturer Sheila Heen, a co-leader of Harvard’s Negotiation Project and co-founder of Triad Consulting Group, has devoted much of her career to understanding why accepting feedback is so difficult, and how to internalize it with more self-awareness and objectivity. Along with Douglas Stone, Heen co-authored two New York Times Bestsellers, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (2000), and Thanks...

How Government-Supported Forced Labor Is Undercutting American Manufacturers

At a White House event in July to promote U.S. manufacturing, President Trump said, “The Made in America movement is growing rapidly under my administration, and we're more determined than ever to protect our jobs, our industry, and our workers. Every day we are putting America first.”

It was a welcome statement but, unfortunately, it doesn’t hold true when it comes to military uniforms and other federal apparel. It’s an open secret that our government has an inside deal with the Federal Prison Industries, a component of the Federal Bureau of Prisons that goes by the trade name UNICOR, to “mandatory source” garments made by prison labor before opening the bidding to American manufacturers. Since prisoners make as little as 23 cents per hour, U.S. contractors can’t compete and many are being forced to close their doors.

Forcing prisoners to sew garments inside “factories with fences” is legal under the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime. However, incentivizing federal agencies to support these prison programs through federal procurement regulations is akin to promoting modern-day slavery. America holds only 5 percent of...

This Can Make Middle Managers Inflate Success

Middle managers may be key in promoting unethical behavior among their subordinates, new research suggests.

In a study of a large telecommunications company, researchers found that middle managers used a range of tactics to inflate their subordinates’ performance and deceive top management, according to Linda Treviño, professor of organizational behavior and ethics at Penn State. The managers may have been motivated to engage in this behavior because leadership instituted performance targets that were unrealizable, she adds.

When creating a new unit, a company’s top management usually also sketches out the unit’s performance routines—for example, they set goals, develop incentives and designate certain responsibilities, according to the researchers. Middle managers are then tasked with carrying out these new directives. But, in the studied company, this turned out to be impossible.

“What we found in this particular case—but I think it happens a lot—is that there were obstacles in the way of achieving these goals set by top management,” says Treviño. “For a variety of reasons, the goals were unrealistic and unachievable. The workers didn’t have enough training. They didn’t feel competent. They didn’t know the products well enough. There weren’t...

Needed: A Commitment to Effective Performance Management

Several recent columns highlight how difficult and complex it will be for agencies to realize the Administration’s goals for “reforming the federal government and reducing the federal civilian workforce.” The stated objectives, starting with “create a lean, accountable, more efficient government,” essentially boil down to this: doing more with less.  

The core problem is that government is not staffed and managed by individuals who were expected to develop the skills essential to facilitate and lead organizational change. It starts with micromanagement (see “Micromanagement is Really a Trust Issue”) that flows from a habit of selecting supervisors based on technical skills and seniority. In “Wanted: Good Leaders For Government. Must Have People, Not Just Technical, Skills,” author Michael Cole argues that “technically competent leaders may set outstanding goals [that due to their management style prove] to be unachievable ones.”

In explaining the problem, Cole refers to an interview of Mike Mears, a former CIA executive, that was published in the Gallup Business Journal. Mears made a critical point:

“Though the U.S. government has world-class leaders and managers, its management framework resembles that of the factories of a century or more ago. That sort of structure was designed to handle...