Agencies Could Weed Out Poor Managers Early, But They Rarely Do

Just seven out of every 1,000 new supervisors failed the probationary period, MSPB found.

Read the comments on just about any story in Government Executive and you’ll come away with one clear impression (besides the fact that the federal workforce appears to be as politically divided as the country): A lot of government employees think they have lousy managers.

A new report by the Merit Systems Protection Board offers some insight into why that may be the case, and what agencies can do about it. In short, too few agencies are taking advantage of the probationary period under which new supervisors and managers serve.

“When used properly, the probationary period is one of the most valid predictors of future success and can help ensure that the government has qualified, competent leaders,” MSPB found. But agencies rarely take action against unsuccessful supervisors during that period. In fiscal 2016, MSPB found that “only about seven out of every 1,000 new supervisors failed the probationary period.”

“Because hiring occurs throughout the year and the length of the supervisory probationary period may vary by agency, we can only estimate the percentage of probationary actions taken against new supervisors,” the agency explained. “However, these estimates point to a convincing trend that agencies are making little use of this additional assessment opportunity. Employment data does not allow us to analyze data for managerial probationary periods in the same way, but similarities in regulations and how agencies administer these programs would suggest that the pattern of actions taken against managers would be similar or maybe even lower.”

The implications for government are significant. Research shows that the quality of an organization’s leadership has a direct bearing on employee engagement and productivity.

Leadership Skills Trump Technical Skills

Many people promoted to supervisory roles ascend the ranks because they have strong technical skills. While such skills may have been critical to their prior success and would certainly serve them well as managers, they don’t always have much bearing on whether someone is actually a good manager.

“Technical skills help supervisors provide appropriate guidance and build credibility with the staff, but leadership skills are more important to a supervisor’s overall ability to lead the workforce. This skill set helps them communicate clearly, empower others, manage performance, and produce results. OPM recognizes this concept by identifying 10 competencies that are most important for supervisory work and treating technical skills as an entirely separate category from other leadership competencies,” MSPB notes.

The board’s “Governmentwide 2016 Merit Principles Survey show that almost three-quarters of employees (72 percent) indicated that their supervisor has good technical skills, but only two-thirds (62 percent) felt their supervisor has good management skills. Furthermore, these leadership competencies are harder to measure and develop than technical competencies. That is what makes the probationary period especially important in determining whether supervisors and managers have these key skills.”

So why aren’t agencies taking advantage of the probationary period? MSPB found that “supervisors’ discomfort with taking actions against ineffective supervisory and managerial probationers is a barrier. This is a longstanding problem in government, and federal employees have commonly cited the management of poor performers as a workforce issue in various surveys.”

The board cited a variety of reasons managers would be reluctant to separate a new supervisor or manager: “For instance, the probationer could have technical skills the organization seeks to preserve or separation could cause morale problems in the organization.” Previous reports have identified insufficient performance management training as a problem.

Another barrier cited by eight agencies was the lack of placement options for unsuccessful candidates: “Under current law, a failed supervisory or managerial probationer is removed from the position but is not necessarily terminated from the organization. An unsuccessful probationer who previously held a position in the competitive service and completed the initial-appointment probationary period would be returned to a position in the agency of no lower grade and pay than the position previously held.”

So what’s to be done? MSPB has some recommendations:

“The most important step agencies can take is to start at the beginning and shore up the front-end employment processes to reduce the likelihood of making a bad hire in the first place. That means improve succession planning, recruitment, and selection; ensure that probationers’ supervisors are prepared to carry out their responsibilities regarding the probationary period; and support probationers through good employee development and performance management programs. Then, focus on putting in place probationary policies and processes that will help probationers’ supervisors take actions when necessary and establishing an organizational culture that emphasizes success while also allowing for failure.”

Read the full report here.