Taking the Fall

If being a supervisor was ever something to aspire to in government, it isn't any more. Bosses became bad guys when the Reinventing '90s began with the National Performance Review's effort to halve the ranks of managers, who were billed as the enemies of empowerment. Now, as the decade closes, government's supervisory ranks are thinner by 65,000. Those who are left feel betrayed, ill-used and overwhelmed. Most manage more people and work than they did before. Few have found support, solace or salvation in the highly touted turn toward team-based management. Many, in fact, have been reduced in rank to "team leader" posts with most of the same responsibilities they had as supervisors but little of the authority.

E-mail and information technology have made supervisors superfluous, they're told. Their private offices have been given to teams as meeting spaces. They've been forced into partnership with unions by an administration whose rhetoric paints nonsupervisors as saints and supervisors as sinners. Nearly 60 percent say they can't get rid of poor performers, according to a 1996 Merit Systems Protection Board survey. And they fear being hamstrung by complaints whenever they act-one in five has been involved in a discrimination complaint; two in five of those were unsatisfied with how the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission handled it, MSPB found. Many supervisors fear they wasted the after-hours classes, ticket-punching and extra effort they made to win their promotions.

"I know of at least 20 [supervisory] positions that have gone unfilled in the last six to eight months," says a Customs Service supervisor. In the last year he has seen at least six supervisors voluntarily go back to the rank and file, the first such downward mobility he remembers in 10 years of managing. "They decided it's not worth it for the couple thousand dollars in extra pay." Other supervisors are opting not to climb the ladder any further. "I was offered the opportunity for a GS-14. I turned it down," says Bob Burkholder, a GS-13 second-shift supervisor at the systems management center and Defense data center in Chambersburg, Pa. "Supervising in the government is a terrible place to be. Higher levels of management are just not worth the grief."

Ronald Kaese, GS-15 chief of the environmental and security office at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., says he doesn't envy those above him in the pecking order. "I look at the [senior executives], and if you calculated pay on an hourly rate I'm ahead of them. They're on their second or third marriages. They work 70 to 80 hours a week. I can get by on 50 to 60 and my lifestyle's better. I've got a social and personal life and I'm still on my first marriage."

Supervisors have management guru Tom Peters to thank for the Clinton administration's relentless focus on reducing their numbers. It was Peters' 1991 call for reducing management layers and increasing supervisory spans of control in private industry that spawned Clinton's 1993 order to double the average supervisory span in government-from 1-to-7 employees to 1-to-15-and halve the number of managers governmentwide. Using buyouts, layoffs and reductions in rank, the administration has accomplished at least part of its goal: The number of supervisors is down 25 percent since 1992, according to MSPB.

But downsizing isn't bringing the delayering the administration desired. Mandating a one-size-fits-all supervisory ratio simply spurred agencies to change titles, reshuffle organizations and spread managers too thin without remedying the diffusion of accountability Peters' disciples hoped to counteract. Downsizing hit nonsupervisors and supervisors at the same time, so the governmentwide supervisory span of control was little altered.

"I haven't seen the reduction of supervisory slots to halve the supervisory ratio governmentwide," says Sally Marshall, a former General Services Administration personnel chief who is now a senior consultant with the National Academy of Public Administration. "I did see agencies cleaning up data to remove people listed as supervisors who were not, changing position descriptions, and making some supervisors team leaders, but it's really a paper exercise. It didn't affect day-to-day realities."

The supervisor-to-employee ratio governmentwide may not have changed much, but in some places, notably the Defense Department, the balance has tilted dramatically. DoD has born the brunt of downsizing thus far-dropping 196,000 employees to non-Defense agencies' 112,000 since 1993-and many of its supervisors have seen their staffs double or triple. "In Defense you have a double whammy," says Paul Light, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, now with the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia. "There has been a fair amount of
real flattening at the middle, leaving supervisors with ridiculous spans of control."

For example, when the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, Calif., began reorganizing its public works staff in June 1996, second-level supervisor William Pfeifer had 140 employees and as many as nine first-line supervisors. Afterward, he had three: one with 12 employees, one with 81 employees and one with 44. "The supervisor with 81 employees has a crew of 12 working eight miles away and a crew of 14 working four miles away," says Pfeifer. "I can't understand how a first-line supervisor can go out and see how 75 people are doing."

"It's impossible," says Bruce McIntosh, the supervisor with 44 employees, among them machinists, people working with high-voltage equipment, piping, and heating and cooling systems. "They are in four shops, they don't work together, they're spread everywhere. You can't get to them all. You have more mistakes, more recall. You have to do things a second and third time and it's hard to handle emergencies."

Teams Won't Play

The National Performance Review told agencies to empower employees to manage themselves in teams to ease the supervisors' burden. "Self-managing teams produce leaner management. They also tend to increase motivation and productivity by increasing the responsibility and participation of workers," the NPR reported in 1993. While supervisors would agree management is leaner, few have seen the increased employee motivation and participation the NPR so confidently predicted.

"Most employees like to be told when to put their left foot out and when to put their right foot out," Pfeifer says. "Employees will drift off. They're subject to wasting time when they know the supervisor won't be at the site for two or three days. Self-managed teams are more a white-collar GS [General Schedule] employee thing than blue collar."

Collar color makes little difference, according to the Customs Service supervisor, whose staffers are white-collar employees. "If either supervisor is out, the bargaining unit complains there's no supervisor," says the supervisor, who asked not to be named. "When we try to explain, 'Supervisors can't work 24 hours seven days a week, you guys are going to have to take some responsibility,' 'That's not my job,' is the immediate answer."

Even supervisors who initially bought the team vision are having second thoughts. When her staff was reorganized into teams, Cathy Kronopolus, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency's certification and worker protection branch in Washington, was a big believer in handing them power and responsibility. After three years of supervising teams she says, "There's incredible resistance to working in anything but a hierarchical arrangement. I have not seen true leadership from the teams yet. They haven't been able to work their way to getting assignments without coming to me."

When Kronopolus travels, teamwork breaks down. "If they feel they need access to me, if they want to bounce something off me, they get stuck," she says. "I had hoped that if I had to be on the road a lot, then they would sit with each other and bounce around policy issues, but I think their egos get into it too much."

Survival, Not Teamwork

Team members at the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Barstow, Calif., also are having trouble as the supervisory apron strings are cut. Kathryn Peterman, a GS-11 support operations branch head in the base's fleet support center, feels the tug of dependency. "I have two team leaders. They try to handle administration, but a lot of times the employee wants to talk with the supervisor," she says. "I ask them, 'Have you talked to your team leader?' and they say, 'No, I wanted to talk to you first.' "

Keeping teams functioning as downsizing continues also is a challenge for supervisors. "Under constant cutbacks, the teams that once were bound by the heart are now pitted one against the other. Survival is the name now, not teamwork," says Peterman. "Where I used to spend my day preparing strategic plans, writing and monitoring our goals and objectives-taking care of the big picture-I now spend my days smoothing ruffled feathers and trying to patch up friendships that have been wounded by a team member trying to make a name for themselves."

Supervisors increasingly feel they're working without a net in a perilous environment; the new expectations teamwork generates just make them feel shakier. "We're asking supervisors to use new skills and they're not comfortable and they're not getting training," says Marshall. Kronopolus says she has peers with plenty of potential who aren't succeeding as managers because neither their bosses nor their teams give them honest feedback. "Managers are hanging out there trying to do right and you don't have a lot of models," she says. She, too, is disenchanted with top management. "There's no model for how they want me to work. My supervisor isn't dealing with a flattened team of this size. I need somebody who has [supervised] multiple teams."

Bloodless, But Bruising

Teams may not be working as advertised, but they have served a useful, if unanticipated, purpose in the assault on middle management bulge: They've become a dumping ground for downsized supervisors. A number of agencies have improved their supervisory ratios by converting supervisors to team leaders and members, the General Accounting Office found in an August 1996 report. Bloodless on paper, downgrades and conversions often prove bruising in real life.

Facing a reduction in force, Gary Krancus, a former supervisor at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Keyport, Wash., agreed to a downgrade from GS-13 to a GS-12, though he'll remain a GS-13 for two years and keep a GS-13 salary indefinitely. The trade-off bought him a RIF-proof technical job on a major contract, but he still felt burned. "I spent three years studying after hours for my [master of public administration degree]. To come out the other end and be downgraded is a blow. My loyalty to the organization has been compromised."

Reclassifying supervisors breeds resentment. "Three years ago we had a logistics manager and three branch managers and we were told to flatten out. We had an all-hands meeting and people agreed to three [eight- or nine-person] teams," says Ron Peters, logistics service center manager for the Federal Aviation Administration's central region. "It was very traumatic for all the managers. Not only did they lose the title, but they lost their private offices," Peters says.

Former supervisors usually continue receiving higher salaries and carrying higher grades than their former subordinates. When everyone is doing the same level work, the pay and grade disparity can lead to grumbling. The success of supervisor conversions "depends on the grace and charity of the other members," Peters says. "I think displaced managers should be reassigned if possible.

"I tried to ease the transition in a couple ways," Peters says. "At staff meetings, I have the three team leaders and I include the two displaced managers because they are senior grades and because of their skills. I also include them in the rotation of people acting for me when I'm out."

Kronopolus had to place two former supervisors in new jobs after her staff reorganized. "We concluded it didn't make sense for them to be team leaders because people would continue to be deferential toward them," she says. "They became senior advisers. They are out of the sphere of the teams. They are not in the meetings day to day or the planning process. The teams can go to them as advisers."

Neither Fish Nor Fowl

At NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., conversions to nonsupervisory and team leader jobs accounted for 41 percent of the total reduction in the number of supervisors between fiscal 1992 and early fiscal 1995, according to GAO. "A new position was created that was called team leader and employees from both management and nonmanagement were used to fill these," reports Wesley Darbro, president of Local 27 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers at Marshall. "Essentially, [team leader] was a supervisor position with just enough duties taken away-such as disciplinary action-to keep it from being classed as management, but not enough to be represented by our union."

Officially neither fish nor fowl, former supervisors who take team leader slots report they continue doing many supervisory duties. The Coast Guard Engineering Logistics Center in Baltimore is making its section chiefs into team leaders. "Officially they can't do discipline, rewards or personnel issues. Now they're driving the same activities, but they're not supervisors," says Coast Guard Lt. Tom Hanley, a former supervisor who is now a team leader. "I have as many as 15 people, but I'm not a supervisor. I guess I'm supposed to be a director of the work and responsible for getting certain work done, but I don't have the authority to reward or sanction.

"I guess I'm royalty," Hanley muses. "The Queen has no power, but you're screwed if you don't listen to her."

In a recent survey of 1,300 former supervisors, more than 34 percent told MSPB they still did supervisory work and 37 percent still consider themselves supervisors. Many employees do, too, Darbro says. "As far as the employees are concerned, a supervisor and a team leader are the same."

The Clever Title Game

By reorganizing into teams and reclassifying supervisors as team leaders, some agencies improved their employee-to-supervisor ratios on paper, but at Marshall, there are more bosses than ever, Darbro says. At the space flight center, organizations that once had a GS-15 division head with four GS-14 branch chiefs supervising GS-13 employees were reorganized into teams. Each branch was split into two teams, and the eight teams were made into two branches. "Then you had a division head, two branch chiefs and the other two branch chiefs became team leaders," Darbro explains. "You also have six new team leaders who are former employees [GS-13s] who became GS-14s. You had five supervisors and now you report you have three, but really you have 11.

"Mr. Clinton's idea, if I understand it, was that we've got too many managers and not enough people with a shovel, so we need to give more people a shovel and we ought to be more effective," says Darbro. "What really happened is that you now have more managers, but you report a better ratio." But Darbro isn't complaining. Some of his bargaining unit members got promotions. The former supervisors aren't complaining, either, he says, since they kept their grades and get to do less administration and more hands-on work. The only ones who suffer, says Darbro, are the taxpayers and true believers in flattening hierarchy. "More people are making more money and you're not pushing responsibility down."

The proliferation of team leaders could signal a resurgence of the very layering supervisory downsizing was supposed to dismantle, according to Light. "Merely reclassifying supervisors as 'team leaders' to make them count as nonsupervisors is not exactly what Tom Peters had in mind," Light wrote in Thickening Government: Federal Hierarchy and the Diffusion of Accountability (Brookings Institution, 1995). Surveying the results of supervisory downsizing two years later, he says, "The number of formal supervisory positions may be down 25 percent, but you haven't done anything if they're still in play. Now we have more team leaders than in all of peewee football. The clever title game that's going on creates the possibility of an informal or de facto thickening even more pernicious than formal thickening. Now the front-line employee has no clue of who is getting in the way: It could be the team leader who spouts new organization-speak but who really is the iron-willed supervisor in disguise."

Upset Apple Cart

Disguise or not, team leadership doesn't carry the cachet supervision does, or at least did. "The people who were section chiefs who became team leaders do not feel it's career enhancing," says the Coast Guard's Hanley. "If there is a job [opening] and it's supervisory, they are now at a disadvantage if they compete against someone who is a supervisor." And not only supervisors are suffering. Nonsupervisors fear management cutbacks reduce their chance to climb the career ladder, too.

"We've heard from employees that we upset the apple cart. Their goal was to be a manager and all of the sudden we eliminated hundreds of managers," says John Turner, administrator of the FAA's Central Region. Exempted last year from civil service law, FAA has more latitude than other agencies to come up with alternative reward systems. "We're going to look at more compensation for specialists and with bands for pay, we'll get out of the structured GS system," Turner says. "We will pay technical people based on competence, not on managerial responsibility."

In Defense organizations, where the ax still is swinging, conditions are grimmer. Peterman got her first job as a GS-3 clerk typist at the Barstow fleet support center where she has spent 25 of her 29 years of government service. "It was my goal to make sure there was a ladder to GS-11," Peterman says. "That was destroyed long ago. Then, I had every hope of being a GS-11. No one could do it now."

For five years, she hasn't been able to promote anyone on her staff. All openings have been filled by employees displaced by downsizing at other DoD facilities. "No one in the office has been able to be upgraded. They are sitting at a GS-5 knowing they can't go anywhere."

Yet Peterman also wonders whether managers haven't played a role in the demise of their positions. Three years ago her job was upgraded to a GS-12, but Peterman remained a GS-11 after two GS-9s were moved from her unit to support another GS-12. "I said maybe I shouldn't be a GS-12 and maybe the other GS-12 shouldn't either. Why not make the job an 11? To congratulate people for doing a good job, we've increased their grade over the years instead of just saying thank you."

The Human Toll

While many federal managers agree government was due for some delayering and downsizing, they also feel it's time for a break. Creative change is born of chaos and angst, says NASA's Kaese. "But I was taught you do this for six months and then you capture the change and then calm things down so the workforce isn't constantly in disruption. It's dragged on in the federal government for years."

Kaese recently has noticed more strokes and heart attacks among his colleagues. "There's been a human toll in this revolution," he says. Bob Burkholder's wife, Vicky, says federal workers' families also pay a price. "Downsizing has become a sword of Damocles always with us, giving us no peace," she says. "It doesn't have to be actual downsizing, just the threat is enough. It takes a toll on families in that there is no longer any security in what was a secure environment. It doesn't care that we have children in school or in college to support, aging parents to take care of, mortgages to pay."

Vicky Burkholder comes from a government family-her father and brother both have been civil servants, as has she-so her sense of betrayal may be especially strong. But it isn't rare. Across government, supervisors and their families are disillusioned. They've been asked to assume new duties, often with less power and little preparation. They've discovered that in the 1990s, playing by the rules and climbing the ladder no longer guarantee recognition, security, or much of anything at all.

NEXT STORY: Time to Get Cooking on GPRA