It’s Time to Invest in Managers

Employee performance—good and bad—depends more on the effectiveness of supervisors than any other factor.

The plans to reform government “to be more efficient, effective and accountable” ride largely on the commitment of federal employees and civil service reform. Yes, strategies and metrics are important; technology is important. However, research by Gallup and others shows that employee performance—both good and bad—depends more on the effectiveness of supervisors than any other factor. Looking back at the few recent success stories, a common thread is the importance of securing the support and buy in of managers and employees.

In the right work environment, workers can be expected to perform at higher levels as well as realize higher levels of job satisfaction. Managers and supervisors are the front line in creating that environment. They also need to provide front line leadership to enable and facilitate change. To state the obvious, there are barriers in the federal bureaucracy that need to be addressed before meaningful gains can be realized.

That was the message of the July 16 letter and recommendations from the Government Managers Coalition to Rep.Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Government Operations. With the letter, they provided a long list of changes important to creating a more productive work environment for federal employees.

This is far from the first reform initiative. The first I followed was President Clinton’s “reinventing government” initiative. The 1993 report that resulted from that effort includes a chapter on empowering employees and 14 recommendations for “reinventing human resource management” but it never mentions managers. Repeatedly through subsequent reform efforts, a missing element common to the failures is silence on the importance of managers.

Government is not unique in ignoring its managers. Research for decades implicitly assumed employees function in isolation. Now we know that the way employees are treated is linked to productivity, turnover, safety, quality, and other factors associated with operating costs. Customer satisfaction is one such factor directly relevant to current political debates. The problem is real, affects agency results and undoubtedly the public’s view of government.

Rather than work to gain employee commitment, the country has a long history of labor-management conflict and distrust. Unfortunately that is still evident at a levels of government.

What Makes a Great Manager

The problem originated decades ago when all supervisors had to do was make certain that subordinates followed orders and did what was expected. That approach to supervision was virtually universal. It was only in the years after the 1990-1991 recession and the emergence of knowledge jobs that employers began adopting new strategies to allow employees to use their job knowledge.

Google was one of the first companies to recognize the importance of effective supervision. In 2002, the company tried eliminating managers, assuming they were not important. But they quickly learned that managers actually do matter—a lot. That triggered an internal research study, Project Oxygen, to understand what makes a great manager and also what that means to the performance of the individuals they manage. The study and the changes Google instituted have been discussed in a number of publications. It’s also a Harvard Business School case study. The conclusions are used to guide the company’s management development programs.  

They now conduct a semi-annual survey to gather employee feedback on managers. Respondents answer confidentially and their manager receives an anonymized summary. Using the response data, Google has identified 10 behaviors of effective managers.

  1. Is a good coach
  2. Empowers team and does not micromanage
  3. Creates an inclusive team environment
  4. Is productive and results-oriented
  5. Is a good communicator—listens and shares information
  6. Supports career development and discusses performance
  7. Has a clear vision/strategy for the team
  8. Has key technical skills to help advise the team
  9. Collaborates across Google
  10. Is a strong decision maker

Gallup’s research reinforces the importance of managers. In their Q12 survey, nine or 10 of the 12 questions, depending on how the questions are read, focus on supervisory practices (e.g., At work, do your opinions seem to count?). They have quantified the cost of ineffective management.

Now, strategies to improve employee engagement are marketed by an endless array of consultants. The payoff from initiatives to improve the work experience is well documented.  

This is a Human Capital Problem

The Coalition letter highlights a fundamentally important deficiency in agency management: The leaders of the five associations acknowledge that their members—the individuals responsible for the day to day management of government—know they could be doing a better job if the constraints were removed.  

The letter suggests another fundamental problem: The mission of the Office of Personnel Management needs to be redefined to add a more aggressive role in talent management. Others can decide if the current OPM should be broken up but it’s clear that the importance of human capital management has not been fully acknowledged by government leaders.

In part, the continuing problem is the historical view of HR, which was described in a Forbes magazine article as “nanny-like.”  That is changing, as evidenced by Google’s HR story along with a number of recent books and articles in business periodicals.

A central issue is the severely-limited role of OPM. The agency rarely fails to address new ideas or practices but the good stuff produced by the staff is largely ignored. That’s illustrated by a 1997 report on 360-degree appraisals—the Google survey—which is now buried and forgotten on OPM’s website. Many leading companies routinely rely on employees for feedback. Asking employees to assess their supervisor would be the right next step in response to the Coalition letter.

OPM also has a 2001 ebook, the Supervisor Qualification Guide, that obviously had minimal impact because the Coalition’s letter highlights the continuing practice to emphasize seniority and technical skills in selecting new supervisors. To quote from the letter, many supervisors “do not wish to manage people and, indeed, often lack the political, negotiation and interpersonal skills necessary to successfully do so.”  It’s questionable whether anyone has actually read OPM’s guide.

There’s another problem as well. A reader of my recent column on incentives—someone who has a lot of interaction with senior leaders across government—told me: “We do not have a credible performance management system in government. At any level. Until we do, it’s simply madness to discuss incentives, performance awards, etc.” I had to agree.

The changes recommended by the Coalition would go a long way to strengthen the prospects for transforming government. Two added changes are renewed attention to how the performance of managers is planned and evaluated along with the transition to performance pay in some form. The argument is that federal managers are like Google’s, they need to transform their approach to supervision and the best should be recognized and rewarded (to reinforce the new behaviors).

In combination, the changes represent a complete overhaul of how supervisors and managers are themselves managed. It’s an investment that’s badly needed. But it can only be accomplished if it’s a priority of government officials. The five leaders who signed the letter along with the individuals they consulted understand its importance and appear ready to support what could be a bumpy transition.