The Forgotten First Year of Supervision

Serious efforts aimed at improving the competence of supervisors will do more for government than a dozen pay-for-performance systems. Administrative costs of deciding who should get what raises is greater than the total pool of money being divided.

They live and walk among us

Have you ever had a bad boss? Most of us have. The failing could’ve been a lack of spine, an inability to see big pictures, pettiness, lack of conversational skills, favoritism, etc. etc. They’re not necessarily bad people, but we begin to think badly of them.

For years I’ve been focused on the notion that an incompetent supervisor has a huge impact on subordinate employees… at work, at home, and in terms of their careers with the government. As I listen to the conversations of family, friends, and strangers – the subject of failed leadership at the workplace (Federal or elsewhere) is perhaps the most consistent topic to come ‘round.

Then, yesterday morning I read an article on pay-for-performance by my colleague Gary Koca that included the following observation:
“When it comes to performance management, Federal managers need to be highly trained in how to assess performance and give accurate ratings. They should be trained, not only in the mechanics of the system, but also in how to apply the system accurately and fairly – the behavioral aspects of any performance management system, including feedback, counseling, assessing, and communicating performance.”

We can debate whether good bosses are born or can be taught. Those who believe the former are virtually without hope. Accordingly, I hold out that teaching management skills can prove fruitful and that treating “management” (including leadership) as an academic discipline — similar to social work or teaching may prove work the investment of time and money
Failures during the first year

A recent MSPB study focused on the one-year probationary period and the need for Federal agencies to use it more frequently and effectively. New full-time hires can be terminated in their first year of employment without most of the procedural and evidentiary requirements government managers see as onerous.

There are many reasons why Federal supervisors and managers fail to acknowledge that misbehavior, indifference and mistakes in the first year of an employee’s service might warrant termination. Among the most obvious reasons is pride (or “hubris” for those of you who studied mythology) that inhibits supervisors and managers from admitting their own mistakes. The sad fact is, most of those in leadership positions won’t acknowledge errors in judgment voluntarily.

What the MSPB study failed to even mention was the one-year supervisory probationary period. Fewer Feds know about this other provision of law pertaining to probation. Fewer still have ever witnessed it utilized. In analyzing the issue of new hires and their first year’s probationary period, the Board may have put the cart in front of the horse. The new supervisor is likely to be an even bigger problem.
The larger problem

For openers, I find the process of selecting and training new supervisors is much more flawed than that pertaining to new Federal hires. In fact, it’s remarkable to me how many good bosses actually do make it into the ranks of the management. Unprepared, unschooled, and distracted by endless administrative duties better left to GS-5’s, Federal supervisors include many women and men of integrity and good sense — along with the inevitable “brown-nosers”, bigots, and incompetents.

My anecdotal experience indicates that for every 50 employees who are terminated during their probationary year, there may not be one supervisor bumped back to her/his former position due to incompetence. No doubt, the Board or the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) could verify this presumption with data from HR systems. Given that the MSPB’s study found probation opportunities to be underutilized for new hires, its supervisory counterpart may as well be non-existent.

When it comes to pride, nothing seems to top that of a manager who decides to promote an employee to supervisor for the first time. One of my colleagues described his agency’s management philosophy as “Good News Only”. This culture filters down from our political masters who never make (read: “never admit to”) mistakes. In such an environment, how can the selection of a new supervisor have been ill-advised? After all, most first-level supervisors were well-known to the managers doing the selecting.

Where Peter’s Principle prevails

From my vantage point, the Peter Principle (“In a hierachical organization, people are eventually promoted to their level of incompetence.”) applies to government, in spades! Whose institutions are more hierarchical than Uncle Sam’s? Again, it’s a wonder how many talented folks make it into the ranks of leadership!

…and there are those who fail in their first year. Passing them into management careers of indefinite duration has impacts far beyond their own shortcomings. Employees leave, or become recalitrant, or “retire-in-place”, or file grievances/complaints, or any number of other manifestations attributable to a bad boss.

Those who are products of the Peter Principle (incompetent supervisors and managers) are the least likely to recognize or admit it. It would behoove the MSPB, OPM, OMB, GAO, and any other oversight agency out there to seriously examine the success of new supervisory hires. I’m not an organizational psychologist or public administrator. Nevertheless, such folks are out there looking for a good study. Tens of thousands of government workers are invested in their potential findings and recommendations.

The answers may be close to home

Investigators might begin by asking new supervisors for their assessment of their own knowledge, skills, and abilities. This may not be as far-fetched as it appears at first glance. Confidentially, many front-line leaders have told me how little aptitude and interest they have in the leadership functions of their jobs.

Of course, it would be wise to also look at the perceptions of peers, superiors, and subordinates. I’m still amazed at how Federal managers and executives fail to ask workers for information on how well they’re doing their jobs or how they might improve their leadership. Skeptical readers may laugh at the notion that “superiors” would ever ask “subordinates” for feedback, but is ample evidence from both the public and private sectors that their responses are more likely to be objective and useful than emotional and insulting.

A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a map

Serious efforts aimed at improving the competence of supervisors and managers will do more for government than a dozen pay-for-performance systems. In fact, everyone I’ve spoken to regarding NSPS and MaxHR assure me that the administrative costs of deciding who should get what raises is greater than the total pool of money being divided.

As best I can reckon, Federal agencies select hundreds of new supervisors each year. How many of those new supervisors were good choices and how many were mistaken ones? If the OPM was seriously concerned about (and the MSPB was willing to investigate) this question, the Federal community would more likely to meet the challenges of performance-based compensation.

Teachers have to take education courses to teach. Cops have to be certified before they can carry a weapon. Manicurists and hair stylists must be licensed. When is the government of the United States of America going to take leadership as seriously? Call me an “idealist” (I’ve been called worse!), but I look forward to reading MSPB’s findings and OPM’s plans regarding effective use of the supervisory probationary period and the upgrading of management skills in the Federal government.

About the Author

Robbie Kunreuther is the Director of Government Personnel Services (GPS). GPS provides 1 to 3-day seminars to Federal agencies in four subject areas: Dealing with performance and conduct issues; Developing sensible performance appraisal criteria; Fostering cooperative labor-management relations; and Applying mediation skills in the workplace. Over the years, Robbie has trained thousands of Federal supervisors, managers, HR specialists, and union officials. For more information about him and GPS, go to