Howard Risher is a consultant and writer on federal pay and performance issues. He was the managing consultant for the studies leading to the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and is the author of 'Planning Wage and Salary Programs.'
The president's proposed budget is accompanied by a discussion of the challenges to "strengthening the federal workforce." The message running through the discussion is how proposed workforce initiatives will contribute to improved performance.
The discussion starts with a review of staffing levels and demographics, which is followed by a summary of challenges: an outdated personnel system, an aging workforce and "managing a workforce so it is engaged, innovative, and committed to continuous improvement."
The report continues with an overview of efforts to address the challenges. "The Administration is committed to further accelerating its employee performance and human capital management. These initiatives are a core component of the President's Management Agenda." The focus is on "products", "data" and "tools."
But something is missing. The discussion is surprisingly silent on the day to day management of employee performance. Each year the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey responses show that is the weakest human capital practice. Moreover, there is no discussion of the key to effective performance management: managers. Research as well as lessons learned from the most successful companies argues for investing in managers if agencies are to achieve the president's "culture of excellence."
Managers and Employee Performance
Gallup highlighted the role of managers in the article, "What Your Performance Management System Needs Most" (available on their website). The subtitle is the key: "A company can have a world-class system in place -- but it's only as effective as the managers who implement it." (Italics added.)
That's solidly consistent with my experience. An employer can adopt the latest performance system – all 'the bells and whistles' – but if it's not embraced and used as intended by managers, it can cause more problems than its worth. Gallup refers to it as the 'people element.'
Their conclusions are based on solid research. They asked more than 50,000 employees in 22 global companies to evaluate managers on four practices (e.g., praises employee achievements). They also asked employees to evaluate the performance management system. The ratings were highly correlated. Those who rated their manager highly, also rated the system highly.
Gallup's definition of employee engagement rides on the answers to 12 questions. Nine or 10 of the questions are directly related to the day-to-day management of performance. It's not the system, it's the manager.
Their research conclusions are consistent with other studies that show managers have more influence on employee performance than any other factor. Many of us have seen that throughout our careers. Great managers inspire high performing teams but when they move to other jobs, the team's performance falls off. Poor managers can only sustain performance with fear.
Leaders, management systems, and financial rewards are all important but managers are the key. They can inspire outstanding performance but those who are ineffective can be very costly.
Management 'Team' Rewards
In hindsight, the creation of the Senior Executive Service as a separate group was a mistake. In companies the "management team" includes both executives and managers. There are to be sure significant differences in compensation but they all participate in the management incentive plan and benefit from stock options. Team rewards are important to maintaining a performance culture.
The performance management system also ties them together. The standard practice is to base performance ratings in part on performance relative to goals. That's true for professionals as well.
As a recommendation, a goal for each federal executive and manager should be raising employee engagement scores. That's consistent with the Administration's announced plan.
In business, managers are rewarded for achieving goals. High performance ratings are limited to those who exceed their goals. Incentives are tied to a composite measure of individual goal achievement and company performance. The Canadian government has adopted that approach.
Managers should also be evaluated on soft skills or competencies associated with creating a healthy work environment. Those skills would vary across the diverse work settings of government. Coaching is one that should be common. Employees should be surveyed for feedback on their supervisor's effectiveness.
Building Better Bosses
A few years ago Google invested heavily in time and money to understand what capabilities made managers most effective in their environment. The results of the project were reported by the media including the New York Times. Google used what they learned to modify how they select, train, evaluate and reward their managers. It paid off in improved performance.
Government should undertake a similar project in each agency. The conclusions need to be credible and accepted by both managers and employees. Government-wide pronouncements ignore the need for buy-in at the local level.
Managers do need those 'tools' and 'products' to support their supervisory roles. A possibility, for example, would be apps based on mini-modules providing advice to handle specific problems.
The FEVS responses show, for example, that managers are not good at recognizing achievements or differences in performance. The data also show employees are not satisfied decisions related to personnel actions (e.g., promotions and awards) are fair. That's basic to high performance. A study similar to Google's would be a productive first step to solving those problems.
If the White House is serious about "Creating a Culture of Excellence and Engagement to Enable Higher Performance", managers are the front line.