The Performance Management Alarms Keep Getting Louder

Government is overlooking a straightforward and inexpensive way to tackle its talent management problems—investing in middle managers.

In 2001, the Office of Personnel Management reported the results of a study, Supervisors in the Federal Government: A Wake-Up Call. The purpose was to assess the status of current efforts in federal agencies to select, develop, and evaluate first-level supervisors. That was obviously not a year when major change initiatives could have been successfully completed but now, almost two decades later, the study’s conclusions still have not been addressed. From the executive summary: 

  • “First-level supervisors are critical to the success of the Federal Government because they are on the front lines. They have a difficult job that is becoming more challenging.”
  • “Agencies need to do a better job of selecting and developing first-level supervisors.”
  • “Most agencies still do not identify employees with supervisory potential and develop them for future leadership positions.”
  • “Supervisors believe that leadership development is given a low priority.”

Those conclusions are unfortunately still valid today.

Outside of government, the argument today, as expressed on the cover of a new book from Gallup, It’s the Manager, is that “the quality of managers and team leaders is the single biggest factor in your organization’s long term success.” The importance of managers and supervisors has been discussed repeatedly in the business press. The most prominent may have been “Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss” as reported in the New York Times.

Research shows managers are key to creating high performance organizations. One expert in the private sector writing for Harvard Business Review argued “creatively, aggressively, and systematically building the capabilities of a company’s middle management team . . . is the single most important thing a CEO can do to maximize his or her company’s performance.”

The state of Tennessee recently succeeded in transitioning to a performance culture and now provides a model that could be followed by other public employers. It was led by a newly elected governor and a human resource commissioner who shifted the focus of the HR department “from transactions and compliance to that of a strategic, trusted advisor focused on the needs of our organizations.”

The case for investing in managers and supervisors is discussed in the new ebook, Fixing Government’s Performance Problem: Rethinking the Support for Managers and Supervisors Would Pay Big Dividends.

For reasons that have never been documented, aside from lip service statements, government has largely ignored its middle managers since the failed Performance Management and Recognition System in the 1980s. A 2018 OPM report on manager training programs found “there is inconsistent delivery and availability of supervisory training across agencies.” Further, in evaluating supervisor performance, OPM reports that “Most agencies simply add a generic element covering supervisory responsibilities to the technical work elements.” Neither statement suggests supervisors are seen as important. 

Government is clearly overlooking a straightforward and inexpensive way to tackle its talent management problems as well as improve agency performance—investing in its middle managers. It’s inexpensive because the potential savings from improved performance on metrics like productivity, absenteeism and accidents will more than offset the cost of training. 

The failure to make that investment was confirmed by a recent 10-question survey of Federal Managers Association members.  Responses to the informal poll were received from 171 managers and supervisors in over 20 departments and agencies. Of the respondents, 44% were first-line managers, 29% were second-level and 27% were higher-level managers.

When asked to “comment on how effectively agency leaders communicate progress and/or problems affecting performance through the year,” what jumps out of the responses is a decidedly mixed picture.  The majority of the responses were positive: “effective,” “very well,” or “pretty good.” But then there were several responses along the lines of “communication continues to be our worst problem.” 

Year-end performance evaluations for 61% of the respondents are based on achieving individual goals.  However, in response to a question about who holds the balance of control in defining goals, from “0%” for the boss to 100% for the incumbent, the average response was 44%, giving incumbents greater influence. But again, it’s a mixed picture with responses at both extremes: 64% rely on goal setting with their subordinates.

The majority of the responses to the question, “How many goals are typically in your performance plan?” were generally in line with textbook recommendations, four to six goals. However, there were responses as high as 30, and “numerous.”  

But when asked how frequently a “boss” provides performance feedback, it was again a mixed picture. The majority reported discussing performance twice a year. A few said monthly or quarterly. But there were several who stated they received no feedback. The best practice today is frequent, informal feedback and coaching; only a handful of responses reflected that practice.

The final question was key: Please comment on the training you have received to work with subordinates to plan and manage their performance? Far too many used a phrase like, “Little to none” or “none for several years.” Several commented that they had only technical training. A couple commented that computer-based or SKYPE training is not effective. Seven who rely on DPMAP (the Defense performance management system) stated “everyone on the same PD have the same goals.” Only a handful feel their training has been “excellent,” “good” or “adequate.”

The DPMAP practice is troubling. Employees in the same job should rarely have the same goals.  Differences in experience and in prior year performance should prompt different individual expectations.  

Overall, the survey responses, although not definitive, confirm performance management is not as important or as systematic as it would be in a well-managed corporation. Companies have the advantage of years of experience; new hires are exposed to goal setting early in their careers. Recently, leading companies have been working to shift to informal coaching with more frequent, informal feedback.

The comparison, or more accurately the contrast, with the investment Tennessee made in transitioning to goal-based management striking. The state invested in three years of training with individualized coaching for managers. By any standard it was a success. The state is now an employer of choice.

That OPM report on manager training was distributed to agency chief human capital officers. It would have been far more instructive if federal managers and supervisors had been asked if their training enabled them to develop essential skills. An even better alternative would be to require agencies to adopt 360-degree appraisal systems, asking employees if their supervisor relied on effective management practices.  

In early October, McKinsey published an article, “Performance Management in Agile Organizations.” Federal agencies may not be agile, as described in the article, but it’s an excellent summary of the best thinking in the management of performance. A statement from the article makes an important point, “Employees are more likely to view their performance management approach as fair if outcomes are differentiated, particularly at the two extremes of performance.” The continued failure to recognize true high performers undermines employee commitment to improved performance.

The article also highlights the value of having managers explain and justify ratings to a calibration committee of peer level managers. Somehow government has to find a way to eliminate the badly, almost ridiculously inflated ratings. Calibration committees introduce the need to explain and justify ratings.

This is not a training problem and it’s not a technology problem, although both are important. Effective performance management has to be a clear priority of senior leaders. They need to commit to the necessary investment. The Office of Management and Budget should check regularly to confirm agency investments are paying off. Tennessee shows the payoff in improved results can be significant.