Empowering Employees is Essential to Improving Performance

Empowered employees take goal achievement very seriously. When problems arise, they know they are expected to act.

For John Kamensky, one of the biggest lessons from government’s reform initiatives over the last two decades is that efforts to empower frontline employees aren’t easily implemented across a large, diverse and decentralized government. He makes the point that “this is an uncomfortable shift because it involves a culture change for managers. They have to trust their workers to do the right thing and empower them with the information, training, and tools to do it.”

It’s an old problem, Kamensky noted, citing the Clinton administration’s 1993 initiative to “reinvent” government, known as the National Performance Review. The plan included a proposal “to reduce the 2.1 million civilian federal workforce by 252,000.” That would have doubled “the span of control of supervisors from an average of a 1:7 ratio to a 1:15 ratio,” which would have forced managers to rely less on micromanagement. The goal was to empower federal employees. In the end, the NPR failed to achieve its core goal of transforming agencies to performance-based organizations.

Notably, 1993 is also the year the Performance Management and Recognition System was ended. And it’s the year the Government Performance and Results Act was enacted. That was a generation ago.

Government has had many failed initiatives to change and improve agency performance. New York University’s Paul Light lists 41 of the ”most visible” failures in the years 2001-2014. One of the more recent was President Obama’s 2012 proposal “to reform, reorganize and consolidate government” to “make government leaner, smarter and more consumer friendly.” In the end, there were pockets of success but as Pew surveys show, the public’s trust in the federal government has declined steadily over the past two decades. 

To restate Kamensky’s lesson, experience confirms top down reform will be resisted and almost inevitably unsuccessful. That has been the fate of recommendations from reform commissions going back decades. Long tenured employees have little reason to cooperate with changes that could affect job security and alter established working relationships.

A New Bottom Up Strategy

But there is a better answer. It’s the subject of the 2018 National Academy of Public Administration white paper, “Strengthening Organizational Health and Performance in Government.” It’s the work of 13 experts on government led by the omnipresent John Kamensky. 

The panel examined leading practices to understand successful strategies for improving “organizational health and performance.” Their conclusion is that reform should “make organizational units the building blocks for improving performance and designate improving organizational health and performance as a governmentwide initiative. By ‘organizational health,’ we mean creating and sustaining a long-term capacity to deliver performance and results.” 

The experts recommend working to create “a new bottom-up demand for improving organizational health and performance, a demand tailored to the needs of different missions and units.” Significantly, the panel recognizes that employees have to be on board and agree with needed changes. The goal should be to create a work environment where employees perform at their best.

The NAPA report implicitly recognizes that government is a huge conglomerate, composed of agencies with different cultures, values and workforce problems. In the past, that conclusion would have never been overridden by concerns that it was inconsistent with the civil service management philosophy. However, arguing that agencies like the Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Forest Service, and NASA have the same workforce issues never made practical sense.

The authors support creating “a learning-based approach to improving results.” That can be interpreted to mean a culture where employees are to learn from their mistakes. That is contrary to risk-avoidance behavior. They want to empower managers to “diagnose and address management problems.” That necessitates new approaches to managing performance.

Performance Management Should Be Dynamic

The Federal Performance Management Framework has been described as “a set of processes and timetables that provide an integrated, recurring routine, links to other management processes, and connections to the budget process.” It’s a solid start but something is clearly missing.

The textbooks tell us that performance plans and individual goals are the product of discussions between managers and their people. The goals are defined with metrics (or similar criteria like project completion dates) and weighted to reflect their importance. As the year unfolds, new problems surface and conditions change, making it important to discuss progress, unexpected developments, and agree on adjustments. At year end the goals and metrics are the basis for rating employee performance. 

That description ignores a core issue: the balance of power in manager/subordinate relationships. Managers make a mistake when they dictate subordinate goals to satisfy a boss. That reduces commitment. Subordinates play a similar game to secure agreement to easily accomplished goals. Goal-based management works best, maybe only, when there is mutual trust and honesty. 

The textbooks also gloss over the importance of performance monitoring, feedback, and coaching. Progress meetings focus on an employee’s progress, unexpected developments, and new information that affects performance. Goals and plans should be adjusted in a changing environment—that’s essential.

Relying on goals minimizes a common problem with many performance systems; that is, basing evaluations on the same generic dimensions (e.g., adaptability) with disparate job families. It undermines credibility. Goals are job specific and avoid that problem. 

There are jobs where relying on goal setting is not a best practice. Generally, every employee can describe what for them is solid performance. They can also state what truly outstanding performance would be as well as failed performance. That can be used to evaluate performance.

So-called knowledge jobs present a different problem: individual accomplishments cannot be anticipated months in advance. There are also jobs where responsibility is shared. Hospital nurses, for example, work a shift with other nurses and physicians. Their performance is best evaluated against a profile of job-specific competencies associated with high performance.

Accountability is Taken for Granted

The idea of accountability is rarely discussed in the private sector—everyone knows they are accountable. 

In business, the sense of accountability is reinforced by the reward system. Employees know what they can expect if they exceed their planned performance; they also know what happens if they fail to achieve annual goals. For executives and managers, year-end incentives affirm their relative contribution.

Interestingly, research shows individuals define higher goals for themselves than those defined by managers. In whatever they do, people like to work to improve on past performance. That is true only when they know it will not adversely affect their careers.

Team and group incentives reinforce employee accountability as well. It’s very similar to teams that win championships. Skeptics express concern with “free riders” but that’s rare in actual situations. Employees work to be valued team members. 

Employee Empowerment

Empowered employees take goal achievement very seriously. When operating problems or unexpected situations arise, they know they are expected to act. What employees learn enhances their capabilities. 

The shift to empowering workers started almost half a century ago in the private sector. It was in the mid-1970s that I was involved as a consultant in staffing a startup Scott Paper plant in Dover, Delaware. Scott’s plan, after the plant was running smoothly, was to eliminate all managers and rely on self-managed work teams. It was then a new, untested idea; by 1993 self-managed teams were an accepted practice in business. 

It’s often forgotten that employees in a number of occupations are accustomed to working with minimal supervision—physicians, lawyers, sales, craft workers, homecare aides, along with millions in small businesses when the owner is away. Others only occasionally have face-to-face meetings with a supervisor. Technology makes it easy to monitor distant employees. Empowering workers is a solidly proven idea. 

The sudden shift for many to remote work triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has changed day-to-day working relationships. It requires a different approach to supervision and new supervisory skills. Some supervisors will never make the transition successfully. Remote employees have greater autonomy to make job-related decisions and that presents new problems.

Recent papers refer to a “learning culture” where development is encouraged and valued, where managers use feedback and coaching to help employees enhance their skills, and where learning tools are readily available. Another aspect of the idea is that employees benefit when they understand mistakes are seen as learning opportunities.

But a fundamental issue and common barrier is the absence of a shared sense of trust. Both managers and employees have become skeptical of announced changes. Political tension makes some employees immediately defensive and resistant to change. Author Stephen Covey has published two best sellers on the importance of trust—The Speed of Trust and The Power of Trust. Early in initiatives to empower employees, agencies should consider using focus groups to understand trust concerns and steps to address the problem.

High Performance Starts with Managers

The focus too often is on employees and steps to improve their performance. But countless studies show performance gains depend on managers. Gallup has made the point for years. It’s managers who empower employees.

Tennessee recognized the key role managers play. Central to the state’s reform strategy was a requirement that to be eligible for pay for performance, managers had to participate in five workshops (a total of 11 hours of training) focused on managing subordinate performance. The state also hired coaches to help managers adjust to their redefined role over a three-year period. 

The investment paid off. Tennessee reports improved performance on a number of metrics.