You Can Manage Your Way Out

It's not just the system, it's YOU.

c ollege graduates understand the trade-off when they go into government. Their pay will be low, but in return they'll get a chance to make a difference in the world. It turns out the young civil servants often get something else they didn't bargain for: bad managers.

Researchers Amit Bordia and Tony Cheesebrough recently asked 25 Harvard University grads-turned-federal employees whether the agencies they worked for had good and capable managers. All 25 said no. As a result of this management failure, the Harvard alums say they often feel like their work doesn't matter and that they're not making a difference. Their supervisors either micromanage or leave them completely to their own devices. Managers don't set clear expectations, share information, review performance, reward excellent employees or deal with poor performers. "My supervisor has no supervisory skills," one Harvard alum said. "He's a good person with a big heart, but this doesn't translate to being a good supervisor."

The civil servants whom Bordia and Cheesebrough interviewed work throughout government in a variety of positions. Their nearly uniform complaints about bad management echo the findings of survey after survey and study after study. At the Internal Revenue Service, half the employees say the agency is poorly run; 46 percent say their managers aren't open and honest with them. Almost half of employees across the federal government said in a 1998 survey that their managers don't take corrective action when their co-workers fail to meet performance standards. One respondent to an Agency for International Development survey described the situation this way: "Management has no idea what it wants its officers to accomplish, so it can give no guidance about what it thinks work requirements should be, nor how excellence might be judged. Since neither management nor staff knows what is to be accomplished, both of them float through the year and then invent requirements based on what was done, not what was expected."

In the world of government, the talking heads are chattering more and more about civil service reform. They say the system-the rules, the regulations, the laws-in which federal managers manage their people needs to be changed to deal with the "human capital crisis" and boost government performance. But the latest private sector thinking holds that people stay with or leave managers, not organizations or systems. In the real world, a simple thank you, the knowledge that what an employee does makes a difference, and a manager who sets clear expectations are more important than the policies and the procedures in the personnel handbook.

Good managers in government already know that. They're not waiting for the powers that be to fix the system-although they certainly wouldn't mind if leaders made the rules less rigid. In the meantime, good managers are doing their best to set clear expectations for employees, share information, motivate workers, recognize good performance and help poor performers improve. They spend their days trying to make the work environment pleasant, getting employees the training they need, talking with employees about their work and making workers feel like their jobs makes a difference.

Stewart Liff is one such manager. As head of the Veterans Benefits Administration's Los Angeles regional office, Liff has taken one of the worst-performing veterans offices in the country and made it 30 percent more productive, boosting both the satisfaction of veterans and the morale of the office's employees. His approach relies on actions that are well within the power of any federal manager: share as much information with employees as possible, set clear expectations, base rewards on performance and create a positive, customer-focused work environment.

In government, there are good managers and bad managers. Even if the civil service is reformed, bad managers won't make a good system work. So while members of Congress and political officials in the executive branch work on the system, federal executives and managers need to work on themselves.


The employee was ROADkill-his government colleagues' term for someone who is "Retired On Active Duty," coasting into retirement, doing just enough work not to get in trouble.

James Knepshield, the employee's manager, didn't want to let him coast. Knepshield thought the employee was capable of good work, so he gave him a three-month assignment to prove it. "I am going to be checking on your progress," Knepshield told him. "I'll be your champion if you do well. If you don't do well, I'll do everything I can to help you move on to the next step" in life.

Three weeks later, the employee retired early, his coasting plans foiled. Knepshield had acted in a way the employee hadn't expected: He did something. "He was surprised that anyone would do anything about it," says Knepshield.

Knepshield is a manager at the Naval Air Systems Command Weapons Division in China Lake, Calif. Most of the 5,000 employees who work at the China Lake site, in the sparse Mojave Desert, and at a sister site in Point Mugu, Calif., along the Pacific coast, work under a special personnel system that could serve as a model for civil service reform across government. Essentially, the system aims to give managers increased flexibility to move employees around, reward excellent workers and punish bad performers. The China Lake system uses broad pay bands and a pay-for-performance system, and emphasizes tenure less than the standard federal personnel system does. It also features less rigid job descriptions than are usually found in government and other characteristics that reformers envision adopting across government.

The division's personnel moved from the standard civil service system to their own model 20 years ago. Here's what they've learned: Bad managers are bad managers under either system. Some managers say it's easier to be a good manager in the reformed system than it was in the old one. But changing the system wasn't a panacea for their management woes.

Knepshield, as deputy director for research and engineering at China Lake, sees both good and bad management in the ranks. When he sees bad management, the No. 1 problem is poor communication between supervisors and employees. "You may have a supervisor who feels like they're communicating, but there isn't evidence that there has been communication," he says. When he sees good management, it's because managers are honest, open and consistent. Good managers tell their employees what is expected and then tell them whether they are meeting expectations.

Effective managers don't use a rubber stamp to evaluate employees. They use consistent principles, but give feedback in different ways, based on what they think is the best way to motivate each employee. For one worker who was very shy and nervous, Knepshield used a soft approach, weaving constructive criticism into discussions that accentuated the employee's positive attributes. Another employee who was an overconfident chatterbox needed some blunt criticism, he says.

Knepshield makes sure that he recognizes strong performers, too. In one case, a very motivated employee took over a project from someone who had been receiving a lot of complaints from clients. The clients gave the new employee a lot of praise. "He is just doing an absolutely bang-up job," Knepshield says. "He'll be getting a nice salary increase."


Knepshield's ability to tie his employee's salary to the employee's performance is something that many federal managers complain they don't have, because increases under standard federal personnel rules follow strict rules that emphasize tenure. But even if federal managers don't have complete control over pay, they are not powerless to motivate and reward employees.

In addition to using-or not using-pay and benefits, managers can boost their employees' performance five other ways, according to WorldatWork, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based group formerly known as the American Compensation Association. The association renamed itself two years ago to reflect a new emphasis on nonpay issues.

The five other tools are:

  • Recognizing good work with such things as thank-you notes, plaques, on-the-spot awards and other forms of recognition.
  • Emphasizing the balance of work and life through counseling programs, employee activities, telecommuting and alternative work schedules.
  • Creating a positive office culture by promoting openness in the workplace, encouraging a specific leadership style, welcoming diversity and involving employees in decision-making.
  • Providing opportunities for development, including training, coaching and career growth.
  • Improving the environment, including the physical work space, the organization's vision and its stature. In fact, more and more, compensation experts say that pay is just the baseline in motivating employees. As long as employees feel that their pay is generally in the same range as other people doing the same work, then other types of motivation become more important. The Gallup Organization, which has been studying employee motivation for 25 years, is even more specific: How long employees stay with an organization and how productive they are depend mostly on employees' relationships with their immediate supervisors. Top performers, Gallup has found, want to know what is expected of them. They want to have the tools they need to get their jobs done. They want to know that their work matters and that they're doing a good job-and they want to hear it from others. They want to talk about their progress and have opportunities to learn and grow.
Good managers give their employees those things. Bad managers don't.

In the Bordia and Cheesebrough survey, the young federal workers said their managers weren't doing the things that the WorldatWork or the Gallup experts say they should be doing. The workers' comments included:

  • "Expectations are not clear and explicit. They either e-mail everything or nothing."
  • "My boss is afraid to be creative and accepts mediocrity."
  • "My boss micromanages a lot. He checks in almost hourly."
  • "My supervisor is almost a free rider."
  • "When I was new, my boss skipped over me in briefing meetings because he assumed I had nothing to contribute, but he never asked me." Observers of federal management cite several reasons many managers don't measure up. For one, people tend to be promoted for their skills as employees, not their skills as managers. For another, government organizations often don't have clear goals and missions. That makes it hard for managers to set expectations for employees.
Many federal managers blame the system. They argue that they are hamstrung by federal personnel rules, by the budget process, by public perceptions of government inefficiency and by the political environment in which they operate.

Steven Kelman, a former Clinton administration procurement official and current Harvard professor who advised Bordia and Cheesebrough on their survey, says the causes of the poor management that young civil servants complain about are both systemic and individual. But while the prospects for systemic reform are hazy at best, individual supervisors can work on their own skills and their managers can help them get better. "The survey confirms the suspicion we have had for a long time that we do not do a good job of training supervisors," Kelman says. "With better management, we can make some progress."

Michael Abrashoff, a retired Navy captain who turned around the USS Benfold in the late 1990s, raising its retention rate from the worst in the Pacific fleet to the best, says his own transformation from a mediocre manager to a good one came when he decided to start managing. Rather than rule by regulation, Abrashoff got to know every one of the 300 sailors and officers on his ship, told them to make the Benfold the best ship in the Navy, and left it to them to figure out how to do it. He spent much of his time praising good performers and trying to turn around bad ones. He also made sure that he got sailors the tools they needed to do their jobs. The Benfold soon outperformed every other ship in the fleet on a variety of measures.

Abrashoff is now touring management conferences talking about his successes and has written a book called It's Your Ship (Warner Books, 2002). The title is a metaphor that fits well with the first step management experts say supervisors need to take to improve their organizations' performance.

To right their own ships, federal managers have to start steering.

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