Putting the 'I' in Teamwork

Should federal managers rate teams rather than individual employees?

The procedure for evaluating federal employees' performance isn't just written in agencies' human resources handbooks. It's written in law. See Title 5 of the U.S. Code, Section 4302.

There you'll find that agencies' performance appraisal systems must establish objective criteria "related to the job in question for each employee or position." In other words, federal performance evaluations are all about individual employees.

Is that a bad thing? In a book released this year, former federal officials Linda Bilmes and W. Scott Gould say it is. "Under the current statutory system, employee performance is measured against standards established for the particular government position without taking into consideration the context in which the employee is operating (such as a team or specific assignment)," the authors write in The People Factor (Brookings Institution Press, 2009). "This leads performance assessment to focus solely on individuals without regard to the overall effectiveness of their team or the desired organizational outcome."

Bilmes and Gould contend that individual standards must be tied to organizational goals to improve performance. That means evaluating how well employees help their team meet its goals, not just how well they perform the tasks written in their position descriptions. "Shift the focus of performance management from individuals to teams," the authors suggest. That would require rewriting the law that puts individuals above teams in appraisal systems.

Much of the debate over the federal evaluation system in recent years has focused on tying pay to performance, but that debate has largely missed the central goals of appraisals. Evaluation systems should give managers a standard procedure for explaining their expectations to their teams. Then they allow managers and employees to assess how well they are meeting those expectations and how they could do better in the future.

The People Factor suggests a debate over teams versus individuals in the appraisal process -- a debate that gets at the heart of performance management in the federal government. The current focus on individuals in evaluations reflects the age-old system of federal human resources policy that calls for every employee at every agency to be treated the same as all employees in the same occupations at all other agencies. A clerk at the Agriculture Department in Iowa should have the same position description, the same career path and the same evaluation criteria as a clerk at the State Department in Baghdad, according to the current system. Instead, The People Factor suggests, the Agriculture clerk should be evaluated for her contributions to the team in the Iowa office, while the clerk in Baghdad should have a different set of criteria based on the goals of the diplomatic team at the embassy.

A greater emphasis on teams over individuals would be more in line with the culture at many federal agencies. As it is, managers give nearly all employees top ratings -- meaning managers are loath to differentiate individuals' performance through the current evaluation system. A team-based system would more accurately reflect the way federal managers and employees think of their work.

A favorite phrase in the literature of teamwork is that there is no "I" in team. A fun response is that there is an "M" and an "E." Finding a way to balance the individual and the team in performance evaluations would be a good challenge for federal managers. It could help agencies meet their organizational goals in a way that the push to tie pay to performance has not.

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