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

Getting Close With Employees Can Backfire On Bosses

Imagine this scenario: The boss asks her longtime employee, with whom she has enjoyed a strong, professional working relationship, to complete a task related to their everyday business. The employee, based on their longstanding rapport, doesn’t grasp the immediacy of the supervisor’s request. The task doesn’t get accomplished in time. Their business suffers.

This common incident resides at the line where the manager-employee relationship crosses and brings with it pitfalls.

In a paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers studied the relationships of 73 pairs of managers and employees working for an IT company in northern China.

Over a 10-workday period, they captured reactions to 600 of what they call “dynamic, episodic transactions,” that is, one-on-one interactions and work exchanges. Each of these interactions lasted more than two minutes: meetings, requests, feedback, advice, general conversations, etc.

Using a cellphone survey platform to record and assess these dealings within one hour afterward, the researchers were able to get instant responses from participants, on a 1- to 5-point scale. The workers answered questions regarding their direct managers such as:

  • “How much did you receive from him/her regarding assigned meaningful tasks?”
  • “At this moment, I feel an obligation...

Belichick Versus McVay: An Age-Old Question Of Leadership

Super Bowl LIII will pit the Los Angeles Rams against the New England Patriots, but the sidelines will be the setting for another kind of matchup: youth versus experience.

In 2017, Sean McVay, at 30 years old, was the youngest head coach to be hired in NFL history. Now in his second season, he’ll be facing off against Bill Belichick, the league’s longest tenured head coach.

As a leadership professor, I study how leaders of all ages navigate generational differences, including how to motivate those that might be on the other side of the generation gap.

For Belichick and McVay, the challenges might seem particularly acute. Most of Belichick’s players hadn’t even been born when Belichick secured his first coaching gig. And while McVay can probably talk about social media with his players in a way Belichick can’t, he’s in charge of a coaching staff that includes septuagenarians.

But it doesn’t matter if you’re the greenest of leaders or a grizzled veteran: With some insight into generational dynamics, your age can become irrelevant.

Bridging the generational divide

Having a leader at one end of the age spectrum can lead to all kinds...

Employees Should Be Managed as Valued Assets

The shutdown made it obvious: Without its employees, there is no government. The pro football playoffs reinforce a lesson that has been highlighted repeatedly for more than three decades by research in the business world: The companies (as well as football teams) with the most talented, best managed employees are normally the most successful. For reasons that are not clear, government continues to ignore that lesson.

In the 1990s I attended a Securities and Exchange Commission conference where the topic was the emerging importance of “intellectual capital.” The meeting was prompted by two Scandinavian companies that added information related to their workforce in their annual report. The focus of the discussion was the recognition that the value of emerging dot com companies depended on assets that walked out the door every day. Their value is still not reflected in financial statements.

A year or so later, intellectual capital was the theme of a conference hosted by Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. The keynote speaker noted that it was the first time he had spoken to an HR audience.  

Human capital management has since become a frequent topic of business publications. In 2017, a large investor group, the Human Capital...

Reconstructing the Administrative State

We are seasoned observers—and sometime participants—in the federal bureaucracy. We share a conclusion: This truly awful government shutdown must never, ever happen again. But, perhaps even more important, we believe this: We must begin—now—to repair the incalculable damage that it has inflicted on the government on which so many Americans have discovered they depend. The costs, both to the economy and federal operations, for this latest shutdown run into the billions, the Congressional Budget Office estimates.

Even the shorter shutdowns of the past have cost the government billions of dollars. Analysts have estimated that Super Bowl distractions cost private companies $29 million a minute. For federal government shutdowns, the costs run into the tens of billions of dollars—shutting government down, gearing it back up, trying to manage the enormous disruptions to an incredibly wide range of important operations, and damaging the overall economy. Those costs cascade through the vast armies of contractors and grantees who do much of the government’s work.

But this time it’s even worse. We’ve discovered that the government does important stuff. It’s stuff that the American people want done. And it’s government that does it. The...

How to Help Your Team be Productive Post Shutdown

A commonly-cited Gallup study about employee engagement validates what many of us see at work. In their “State of the Global Workplace” report, Gallup reports that only 15 percent of employees say they feel engaged. By definition, this means 85 percent of our co-workers are not emotionally invested in spending their time and talent to advance their organization’s mission. That vast majority is disengaged, not because employees don’t believe in the mission, but because they don’t think their work actually contributes to that mission.

We’d all like to think that our teams would perform better in this Gallup survey than the norm, but federal leaders can’t ignore the impact the shutdown has had on employee engagement. What do you imagine a lengthy shutdown—a period of forced disconnection—does to employee engagement once everyone is back at work? The answer lies in understanding what drove engagement on your team in the first place. The shutdown will have amplified any disconnect employees already felt.

Most federal employees run on the fuel of mission, appreciation, and stability. They chose their job over other private section options because they believe in their agency’s mission. They think of...