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Supervisors Hold the Keys to the New World Order

Managing teams is no longer about taking control, it's about giving it.

A common thread that runs through the new civil service report from the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton, is the vital importance of managers and supervisors. Research tells us they have more impact on an organization’s success than any other factor. Leaders define the mission and develop the operational strategy, but it’s middle managers and supervisors who have the day-to-day responsibility for making it happen. The report’s recommendations depend squarely on a capable, responsible cadre of managers.

Research over more than two decades confirms that when employees are empowered—one book uses the word “unleashed”—to capitalize on their abilities, they are capable of performing at significantly higher levels. That is especially true for knowledge workers. Managers hold the keys to creating a work environment where those workers can thrive.

Government operations across virtually every agency depend on knowledge workers. There will always be offices devoted to routine production work (e.g., processing claims or paying benefits). But in the future, employees will be confronted by increasingly complex problems that require innovative solutions.

In his column “Damn the Org Chart,” retired federal executive Henry Romero makes the point that the hierarchical, top-down, close control model for managing work that was common in early factories and government is wrong for knowledge workers. According to Romero, the traditional model “might be contributing to the inefficiencies . . . in many government processes.” My experience has convinced me it definitely impedes good performance. The civil service system is the problem.

Replacing the Old Model

There was a time when the job of a supervisor was relatively simple: Assign work, then oversee employees to confirm they meet minimal performance expectations and stay out of trouble. A core organizing principle was the span of control or the number of employees supervised. In old texts, the maximum number was five or six employees. That made close control possible.

In industry the phrase “span of control” has been deleted from the lexicon. Decisions related to the organization and management of work systems rarely focus on the question itself. The goal is to delegate responsibility and empower workers to make decisions. Studies confirm it leads to higher job satisfaction and commitment.

One of my first consulting projects, now 40 years ago, was a new factory organized around self-managed teams. It was a radical idea at the time—there were no supervisors. In discussions, employee comments were eye opening. Their commitment to making the plant a success was beyond anything I had heard from corporate executives. One employee thanked God for the opportunity to work there. The experience gave one individual the confidence to become a leader in her local community.

There was, however, no rush to rethink the organization and management of work on a broad scale until the 1990-1991 recession. The early years of the decade ushered in a revolution in thinking. Businesses became relentless in eliminating unnecessary costs and becoming more responsive. The old textbooks were burned.

There are many jobs where people function very well with no direct supervision. Salespeople are a classic example, craft workers in construction are another, delivery people are yet another. Many employees rarely see their supervisor. In work situations that involve reasonably routine operations employees can function well without direct supervision. When trusted, employees are fully capable of managing themselves.

Preparing Managers for the Future

Google, which is No. 1 on the list of “best companies to work for,” decided the problem was important enough to undertake a major study to improve the effectiveness of its managers. The company surveyed employees to identify the behavior traits shared by their best managers. Surprisingly perhaps for a technology company, a manager’s technical skills were relatively unimportant. They used what they learned to modify the way managers are selected and promoted, and upgrade manager training programs and the criteria used to assess managers.

Agencies can develop a similar list of behaviors simply by asking employees in focus groups to identify the skills of effective managers. They should also be asked the best way to organize their activities.

The Partnership report calls for “a standard set of level-specific people-management expectations.” The problem is the skills required to be an effective manager differ even within departments. At the Homeland Security Department, for example, the Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency have different missions, structures, cultures and management challenges. But there are also common requirements. One, for example, is holding managers accountable for results on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

The decided advantage of involving managers and employees is that it strengthens the acceptance of new practices and avoids “not invented here” resistance.

Another point: The best managers need to be recognized and rewarded. Training will have minimal impact if it’s not reinforced. The best managers should be treated as the MVPs they are.

These changes should not wait for civil service reform. Managers have been the forgotten stepchildren of government. Recent retirements make this an ideal time to follow Google’s lead. An employee’s relationship with his or her supervisor is a vital driver of engagement and performance.

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