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Focusing on the Positive: Rewarding Good Workers and Managers


The pundits focused on the line in President Trump’s state of the union address asking Congress to “empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority . . . to remove federal workers.” For the most part, they ignored the call to “reward good workers” preceding the reference to removal. It may be naïve, but another recent report from federal leaders, the Federal Pay Agent report, wants to “empower federal agencies to better manage, develop, and reward employees.” Read together the statements are similar to sentiments corporate leaders might express.

In other sectors, the Pay Agent statement would likely be welcomed. Support for better management, more training, and financial rewards would in any other context be seen as a positive management philosophy.  

Normally terminating poor performers is seen by co-workers as a positive step.  In the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the statement “In my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve” receives the lowest score in the survey—31 percent. That suggests employees want action to be taken. Allowing a poor performer to continue is disturbing to co-workers. It’s been described as a workplace cancer. But of course, terminations should be a last resort and handled fairly.

The growing support for easing the restrictions on firing employees highlights the need to strengthen performance appraisal systems. Anecdotal evidence suggests many ratings would not be defensible. The generic, almost abstract criteria common in too many appraisal systems are not defensible. The best are based on job-specific performance goals and metrics.

Agencies should be celebrating outstanding achievements and top performers. Those employees are far more valuable and important than the handful of poor performers.  

Investing in Better Management

The understanding of strategies to raise performance levels has undergone dramatic change in the past 20 years. Of all the changes, the most significant is redefined expectations of managers and supervisors. Research shows they have more influence on employee performance than any other factor.  

While managers are instrumental in the achievements of their people, they also contribute to the morale problem Gallup refers to as active disengagement. Those employees can be disruptive. Investing in better management pays off. The great places to work have great managers.

Government would benefit from redefining the approach to supervision based on Google’s 2011 ‘Project Oxygen’ that identified the behaviors of highly effective managers. Seniority and technical skills should be replaced by the potential to be effective in the role. The problem is exacerbated when a manager’s effectiveness is not the focus in evaluating their performance. That has to change. Training should be augmented with one-on-one coaching. Extending pay for performance to managers would send an important message. Managers known to be ineffective have to be moved to non-supervisory roles.  

In a recent column, I argued that government needs to switch to goal-based management for executives, managers and supervisors. One of the goals, especially for front line supervisors, should focus on their effectiveness as managers, as measured with engagement scores. A related practice common in better managed companies is for subordinates to assess their boss.

Investing in Training and Development

Knowledge is supposedly doubling every 12 to 13 months. And many federal specialists work at the forefront of their fields. That makes training essential. However, the annual FEVS survey shows almost half of the respondents are not satisfied with the training they receive.  

A staggering statistic is that the 100 companies on the Great Place to Work list “offer nearly double the hours of on-the-job training to full-time, salaried employees as companies not on the list.” Federal agencies should benchmark against the companies on the list.

Opportunities and support for personal growth and development are known to be important for recruiting and retaining Millennials. But every worker needs to avoid knowledge obsolescence. Improved performance requires honest, constructive feedback along with informal coaching. Managers should be accountable for ensuring their people have individual development plans.

Investing in Reward Practices

The psychological value of rewarding good performance is unquestioned. It surfaces in all aspects of life.  When performance is rewarded, it is more likely to be repeated. Reward and recognition practices along with solid performance planning are central to creating a high performance organization.

While the focus in business is on monetary rewards, the popular book, 1001 Ways to Reward Employees provides a long and varied list of alternatives. This does not have to focus on money.

The scores on the FEVS questions related to recognition and reward practices are consistently the lowest.  The percentage positive scores on the 2017 survey were:

  • “Promotions in my work unit are based on merit.” – 36 percent
  • “In my work unit, differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way.” – 36 percent
  • “Awards in my work unit depend on how well employees perform their jobs.” – 31 percent
  • “Creativity and innovation are rewarded.” – 31 percent

Those scores should be unacceptable. Government needs to invest in developing the appraisal systems and policies that would support reward decisions.  

The Key: Ending Micromanagement

A thread that repeatedly surfaces in discussions of how to improve performance is the prevalence of micromanagement. Any intent to improve performance will be thwarted by micromanagers. High performance emerges only when employees are empowered to use their capabilities more fully.

The problem was captured, along with a story of a solution, in a recent column by Russ Linden: “Giving Public Employees the Power to Use Their Judgment”:

In 2005, a few days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Admiral Thad Allen was appointed the federal official in charge. He reportedly was amazed that thousands of first responders were wandering around, trying to be helpful but with no guidance.

“Allen recounted how he dealt with that situation: He called an all-hands meeting. Some 2,500 people attended. He got up on a desk, explained his role and then said, "You need to listen to me: This is an order. You're to treat everybody that you come in contact with that's been impacted by this storm as if they were a member of your family—your mother, your father, your brother, your sister . . . And if you do that, two things will happen: Number one, if you make a mistake, you will probably err on the side of doing too much. And number two, if anybody has a problem with what you did, their problem's with me, not you.”

Micromanagement is a high barrier to improved performance.

Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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