If the federal government is to achieve even modest success in implementing new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Defense (DoD) regulations that tie salaries to individual achievement, some formidable barriers must be scaled. Principal among these will be the lack of support vested in front line federal management. Considering the government’s maze of central offices, field structures, and politically driven leadership even the most basic moves to empower local management may prove Herculean.
To date, managers have relied on human resources (HR) offices to determine salaries (grades) and employee longevity to determine salary increases within those grades. Under pay banding and pay-for-performance such decisions will be vested in line management for the first time.
Beyond these new demands on line management lies another barrier, namely, a realistic discussion of performance standards and measures of individual success or failure. Vast numbers of government workers occupy positions that don’t lend themselves to "bean counting." By the same token, passing out (and withholding) raises on the basis of vague generic standards can only serve to undermine pay-for-performance efforts in the early going.
This article will concern itself with the supervisory/management side of this new compensation/evaluation equation. The final in the series will address performance standards.
Who are our supervisors?
The competence of immediate supervisors is crucial to a successful transition to the new pay systems. In addressing this issue, those who suggest most federal personnel decisions are rooted in bias and favoritism should suspend their blaming long enough to consider the realities of front-line management. Currently, supervisory failings are less likely to stem from individual character flaws than from failings with the training and organization of federal management.
To better understand the current realities of federal supervisors, first think about how these folks moved from being workers to leaders. It appears that the largest proportion of them had no passion to supervise or lead their peers. Rather, they had reached the apex of their career path, looked at vacant supervisory slots, were tempted by a salary increase, and wanted new challenges. So they applied.
Exceptions to "merit promotion" are glaring and embarrassing. The majority of supervisors were selected for their jobs on the basis of merit — knowledge, skill, ability, and hard work. By the same token, most had no prior training to prepare them as leaders within a bureaucratic structure.
Employing the mushroom philosophy
Months (and in some cases, years) after assuming the helm, newly selected leaders are given 40-80 hours of training to equip them for their new 40-80 hour per week job. In most agencies, the bulk of these introductory classes are presented by people who have little, if any, management experience themselves. Often, more emphasis is placed on rules, regulations, and paperwork than on motivating staff.
The sad reality is that our supervisors are not well schooled in the art and science of their new career paths. We dare not ask them (or the managers above them) if they ever read books or periodicals on the subjects of leadership and management. Instead, management style is allowed to develop haphazardly — often relying the advice of others who are equally unschooled.
A compounding factor rests in HR offices. They are well schooled in federal laws and regulations that comprise the government’s "merit system." For instance, salaries accorded to different positions are based on the interpretation of booklets published by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and promotional candidates are ranked by staffing specialists with no experience in that trade or profession.
Most federal HR specialists have not studied human resources as an academic discipline (unlike computer specialists, environmental specialists, etc.). Few of our agency personnel experts are schooled in techniques or practices (like pay-for-performance) outside the federal government. DHS and DoD will have a tough time converting their HR offices from gatekeepers and regulatory experts to advisors.
At present, many first level supervisors are not empowered to make basic determinations (rewards, punishments, etc.) regarding their own subordinates. Instead, they make recommendations that are scrutinized and critiqued by others, none of whom is fully aware of the situation on the ground. Employees come to realize that their immediate leadership has limited authority and influence. They often respond accordingly.
Determining and redetermining the salaries of individual civil servants will require a strong cadre of empowered first level managers — capable of determining which employees should be paid how much. But where to begin?
Beginning at the beginning
A good starting place would be the selection process itself. Because of concerns regarding merit principles, most agencies do not prepare employees for their first job in management. The belief is that doing so would constitute "pre-selection" and undermine a fair and impartial process. Accordingly, while new engineers must know engineering, new lawyers must have studied law, etc. — new supervisors needn’t know the first thing about the crucial career field their about to enter.
It has been obvious for years that federal agencies need a competitive training process for would-be managers. Employees aspiring to management jobs could apply for training well in advance of a given position becoming vacant. Such pre-supervisory programs would be competitive and based on merit. Those who successfully complete for such training would, naturally, be at an advantage for subsequent selection to a leadership position. To paraphrase a famous old advertisement, "Train me now or train me later!"
Then what? OPM and federal agencies should collaborate in developing a curriculum for ongoing management education. Managers should be required to receive training (if not college level classes) that speak to practical management skills in a bureaucracy. At present, precious management training dollars are too often spent on lofty concepts (like total quality management) rather than pragmatic subjects (such as how to properly document employee performance, mediation skills, and motivation techniques).
Looking at our "lowest priority"
Beyond the financial and time commitments to better educate its first level managers, federal agencies should examine their own management priorities much more closely. This is the most formidable challenge of all. It is best illustrated by a supervisor who, in a training seminar years ago, reached her limit.
The agency in question was in a hiring freeze and a senior executive commented on the shortage of personnel with the fatal phrase, "We need to learn how to do more with less." Face flushed with anger, she surveyed a room full of senior managers and, after an initial salvo of invectives, flatly stated, "The people I supervise are my lowest priority."
It was clear this woman was committing a rare act of organizational suicide. It was also evident that she had been formulating that sentence for some time. She continued by saying, "First-come the meetings. There seems to be one or more every day. While most of the time no one wants my opinion nor asks for it… but if I don’t attend the meetings people above me will notice and I will pay a price."
The unease was growing. "Then comes the administrative paperwork. I imagine that a GS 5 or 7 could do a better job completing the weekly, monthly, quarterly reports than I do. But I’m the one who has to do them… and if they’re not done correctly and on-time I will pay a price." Now the tension was palpable.
"Lastly, come the special projects. Someone from this office or that department wants me to gather information or perform an analysis that doesn’t concern me or my people at all. I’m often asked to drop everything for hours (if not days) to carry out a special project… and if I don’t I will surely pay a price." It was clear she was turning some sort of corner and heading to a conclusion.
"Now we get to the people that I supervise. If I don’t see them or speak to them for an entire week or pay period, no one above me seems to notice or care. I won’t pay any price for that. Like I said, my people are my lowest priority." She sat down — exhausted and fulfilled. No one attempted to refute her logic.
A matter of priorities
If DoD and DHS really want to approach pay-for-performance in a serious vein it’s time to consider priorities of the supervisors who (with the approval of their superiors, no doubt) will be making salary determinations and pay adjustments. Beyond the technical training, better selection procedures, and a new perspective on career development, will agencies make room for real day-to-day supervision?
If so, such a commitment must be backed by deeds as well as words. The primary role of supervisors (namely, leadership and oversight) should be the principal focus when evaluating their work. Their success or failure should be based on the level to which they have observed, coached, documented, and counseled their direct reports. This requires that distractions from their principal focus be kept to a minimum.
Many will fear that empowering supervisors will result in "micro management." Such anxieties may be well founded. The objective is not to create a cadre of front line managers who simply hang over competent employees in order to create unneeded documentation.
An active, present, engaged supervisor will almost certainly be perceived as overbearing and intrusive by some, while being welcomed by others. For less stellar employees, a "micro manager" is a supervisor who notices what they’re up to. Others have been waited years for someone in management to start paying more attention to their efforts.
A better selected, better trained, and better supported management is an absolute requirement in the new environment DoD and DHS are demanding. The lofty objectives that have led to pay-for-performance and pay banding can only be realized if agencies provide ongoing, long-term support to those who lead in the trenches. In essence, this is a test of leadership and, therefore, the knowledge, skills and abilities of our front line mangers are of primary concern.
If and when supervisory empowerment is addressed, the next question will concern the mechanics of appraisals. How many rating levels will there be? Will supervisors have a say in developing the criteria against which employees will be rated? Will employees be rated in generic categories (such as "initiative," "professionalism," "teamwork," etc.) or in categories that relate to the duties of a particular job ("developing plans," "writing reports," "making repairs," etc.)?
These and other questions will be addressed in the last of this three-part article.
Robbie Kunreuther is Director of Government Personnel Services, a labor and employee relations training firm. He can be found at robbiek.net and (206) 781-8859.