To Be Successful, the Federal Government Needs to Empower Its Employees
Managers need the training and the tools to create a workplace where everyone is valued and committed to achieving organizational goals.
The Biden-Harris Management Agenda Vision launched last November focuses on what has long been a serious weakness in government operations. “Priority Area 1 -- Strengthening and empowering the Federal workforce” – focuses on the vital importance of frontline workers in “Priority Area 2 -- Delivering excellent, equitable, and secure Federal services and customer experience.”
It's straight out of the textbooks on creating high-performance organizations. The Vision is an excellent statement of what agencies at all levels of government should have recognized decades ago.
The missing element in the discussion is the importance of managers in creating a workplace where everyone is valued and committed to achieving organizational goals. Gallup argues that, “the employee experience begins and ends with the manager.” The manager/employee working relationship is central to improved engagement and to better performance. Effective managers empower their people, and the Vision statement fails to mention managers.
The statement is also silent on the time agencies will need to realize the transition to an empowered work climate. The all too common “culture of compliance” will be a high barrier. The pandemic and working remotely increased employee autonomy, opening the door to empowerment. But managers will need support. Investing in the workforce of course is also a political issue. Focusing on improved results could help to build broader support.
The Power of Empowerment
The pandemic, remote work, and increased autonomy has made virtually every employer reconsider how their people are supervised. Empowerment has become almost faddish. In other sectors leaders realized years ago that empowering employees – making better use of talent -- leads to better results.
As far back as 1983, the American Academy of Nursing adopted the “14 elements of magnetism” seen as “the building blocks of excellence” that included participative management. With the 1990 recession, companies eliminated layers of management to cut costs which increased the ‘span of control’ and gave workers increased autonomy. Early in the decade the growing importance of knowledge jobs made corporate leaders aware that top down, close supervision inhibits an employee’s contribution. Only government sticks with 1940s workforce practices.
A 2018 article in the Harvard Business Review, “When Empowering Employees Works, and When It Doesn’t,” summarized the results of more than 100 studies in 30 countries. The key finding is:
Managers “who were perceived as more empowering were more likely to delegate authority to their employees, ask for their input, and encourage autonomous decision-making. And they were more likely to have employees who were rated, by either their leader or colleagues, as being highly creative and good organizational citizens. Specifically, this type of leadership seems to encourage employees to generate novel ideas and think of new ways of doing things, and to help others in the workplace, volunteer for extra assignments, and be willing to support their organization outside of an official capacity.”
The authors noted two distinct psychological processes.
- Empowered employees “felt a greater sense of autonomy or control in their work, they felt that their job had meaning and it aligned with their values, that they were competent in their abilities, and that they could make a difference.”
- Empowered employees “are more likely to be powerful, confident individuals, who are committed to meaningful goals and demonstrate initiative and creativity to achieve them.”
They found that empowerment had a stronger positive influence on the performance of less experienced employees. That’s a key issue for government.
However, the analyses also found that when managers empower employees, it can do more harm than good. One study found that by trying to provide employees with additional responsibility and challenges at work, managers “burdened their employees and increased their level of job stress.”
The article ends by stating that empowerment “has its limits” and “factors like trust and experience affect how the shift in approach to management is perceived.” Are agencies ready?
“Supervisors in the Federal Government: A Wake-Up Call”
Two decades ago, OPM conducted “a study of a road map of the changes that need to take place in the identification, selection and development of government supervisors.” The study’s date is not shown on OPM’s website. A retired federal HR executive guessed it was likely completed “within the last six years.”
The study found :
- Supervisors “. . . felt like a forgotten group; they are no longer employees, but they are not viewed by executives as part of the management team.”
- Federal selection practices placed “a higher value on technical competence over leadership competencies.”
- “Only 11% said they participated in leadership development programs and only 5% had attended some form of development that dealt with leadership or supervisory topics.”
- A supervisor’s performance is rated “much the same way as they do non-supervisors. Leadership responsibilities are not assessed extensively.”
- “Management’s concern is that nothing go wrong, not that a job is particularly well done.”
The final quote captures the reason NAPA has emphasized the importance of shifting from a “culture of compliance” to a performance culture.
The OPM study also noted “agencies give far greater weight to technical work over supervisory responsibilities in terms of what agencies recognize and reward. Many supervisors voiced frustration about being unappreciated for doing a tough job.” According to the report, “agencies need to take action to make their supervisors feel valued.” That statement highlighted a core problem. In other sectors managers are recognized and rewarded for the performance of their units.
To OPM’s credit, this was one of the first studies in any sector of the importance of supervisors. Gallup’s early research on the importance of employee engagement dates to the same period. The word “empowerment” was not yet a buzzword. Since then, the interest has exploded.
The sudden shift to working remotely during the pandemic prompted renewed attention to frontline supervisory problems and to maintaining team and organization performance. What was effective when people worked together is no longer feasible. Employers in every sector were unprepared. It was clear months ago that in a remote work environment managers need a new approach to supervision along with new tools and practices for communicating, and for monitoring and managing performance.
A core question is, if OPM undertook the same study today, would the results be significantly different?
Managers Need Love Too
That retired HR executive said they “would not be surprised to find the results the same.” The point is, “while we study lots of things, taking action to address the issues is a whole other thing.”
There is a long history of commissions, hearings and studies focused on improving government operations. But somehow the missing element in virtually all the deliberations is the importance of middle management. When the Senior Executive Service was established in 1978, the legislation also created the Merit Pay System for managers in GS 13-15, but it was poorly conceived and failed. Since then, the 150,000 middle managers have largely been ignored.
A core problem across government – including the USPS – is that the pay increase to become a supervisor is far too small. Front line managers have to live with too much stress and aggravation. And the mistaken emphasis on technical skills and seniority restricts the pool of candidates considered for promotion at higher levels. The problem is further exacerbated by the artificial ceiling on SES pay. A very different pattern exists in the private sector.
(The ceiling on salaries at the highest levels of government is a related but separate problem. In other sectors, executives and managers earn significantly higher compensation. The ceiling has been cited as a problem in filling judicial vacancies. The answer years ago was relying on the Commission on Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Salaries to recommend pay increases but that ended with the passage of the Ethics Reform Act of 1989. The existing framework fails to differentiate between career employees and those who run for office).
The Biden-Harris Vision focused on the below average employee engagement scores. Notably, the engagement scores in the best performing companies are well above that average. Gallup’s two decades of research shows managers are the key to improving employee engagement as well as to better performance. OPM’s Wake Up Call discussed the supervisor/employee relationship, emphasizing “trust, respect and support,” but was essentially silent on employee performance. That’s repeated in the FEVS questions used in OPM’s engagement metric.
Significantly, the agencies with the highest engagement scores – e.g. NASA, GSA and NSF – have well-defined missions, clear goals and metrics. Their operations are well-suited to goal setting and make it possible for employees to understand how their efforts contribute to achieving the goals. That work environment and the importance of managers was subtly depicted in the recent movie, Hidden Figures.
It’s clear the over-the-shoulder supervisory style is no longer workable. It’s the antithesis of empowerment. The Vision goal of “Strengthening and empowering the Federal workforce” will require a different approach, giving employees more discretion to do their jobs. But to make the transition, agencies will need to prepare their managers and their workforce.
Empowerment Starts with Preparing Managers
The potential payoff is high. Given the political nature and the extended time frame, a suggested strategy is the creation of an independent review body to recommend new workforce management practices. Reviewing the practices in high-performing companies and healthcare organizations would be instructive. The strategy adopted successfully to guide Tennessee’s reform shows public agencies can make the transition.
Managers will need to develop new supervisory styles and new soft skills. Agencies will need to invest in identifying those skills, provide new development opportunities, and introduce related appraisal and recognition practices. Progress reports will help to maintain focus. But change is very unlikely without solid, continuing leadership.