Manage Yourself

Don't forget to pat yourself on the back sometimes.

If you want to lead a productive career, then you cannot rely solely on your boss. You have to manage yourself, setting your own work goals and rewarding and penalizing yourself for how well or poorly you do. That's especially true if you're a mid-level manager, one of the more thankless jobs in government service.

When things go wrong, managers get it from all sides-unhappy stakeholders, disgruntled employees and their own bosses who are twice-removed from life at ground level. But when things go right, good managers believe they should give credit to their employees, stakeholders get what they expected and upper-level bosses get bonuses. "When managers underperform, criticism is automatic," says Karen Hardy, a senior program analyst at the National Institutes of Health who has a doctorate in organizational leadership and human resource development. "That's the automatic response to underperformance. But when managers do well, the response is null. Nothing happens."

Such is life. To get at how managers deal with that reality, Hardy conducted a survey of 429 public managers at various levels of government. A majority said they set goals-the first step in managing yourself.

But when it came to punishment and reward, what she found is not all that surprising given the negativity in which managers often find themselves engulfed. Sixty-three percent of managers said they tend to be tough on themselves when they think they've done poorly. Most feel guilt, openly express displeasure with themselves and get depressed. But when they do something well, only one quarter agreed that they reward themselves with something they like or with a special event like a good dinner, a movie or a shopping trip. Seventy-seven percent said they don't or hardly ever reward themselves. "We want other people to reward us, but we seldom reward ourselves for a job well done," Hardy says.

Self-criticism, of course, can be a good thing. It gives you an opportunity to reflect on your actions and figure out how you could have done something better and how you can do better in the future. That's not just beating up on yourself. "Self-punishment can lead to the reshaping of ineffective behaviors into more productive ones," Hardy says.

Think about how you manage employees: You set goals for them and then reward or punish them according to how well they meet those goals. Those basic performance management rules apply to you, too. Why? Because if you only self-criticize and never self-reward, then your performance could suffer-the same way your employees' performance would suffer if you only criticized and never praised them.

You can't control the rewards that others give you, but you can control the ones you give yourself. So when you set your goals, think about how you will reward yourself for meeting them. A trip to the masseuse? A deep-sea fishing weekend? Even just a pat on the back?

Praise breeds confidence, and confidence breeds better performance. It's true for your employees, and it's true for you, too.

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

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