Federal Supervisors: Are They Ready, Willing and Able to Manage the Workplace?

How widespread is the perception that supervisors in federal agencies are ineffective and what are the implications of this perception for the federal workforce?

In writing about a wide range of human resources and workplace issues for FedSmith.com, I have encountered some recurring themes among the readers who have commented in the "Discuss this Article" section or have written to me. One such theme is the perception that supervisors are unwilling, unable, or both, to deal with problem employees and workplace issues of various kinds. Here is a representative comment: "[E]very problem stems from too many people who are supervisors who shouldn’t be. They don’t want to counsel, discipline, enforce the rules, etc."

I wanted to gauge how widespread the perception of ineffective (or worse) supervisors might be and to examine the implications for the Federal workforce, so, as usual, I started by researching relevant literature. For example, I remembered reading about a survey of Federal employees that included views of supervisors and agency management. The article, titled "Federal employees satisfied with supervisors," was authored by David McGlinchey and published in GovernmentExecutive.com on May 19, 2005.

"Federal employees have confidence in their supervisors…according to a survey released … by the Office of Personnel Management.

The 2004 Federal Human Capital Survey questioned more than 147,000 federal employees and found that…nearly 70 percent of employees said their immediate supervisor does a ‘good’ or ‘very good’ job. Only 12 percent said their supervisor does a ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ job."

While 147,000 employees is certainly a statistically significant sampling, the number (12%) who responded that their supervisor does a "poor" or "very poor" job sounded suspiciously low based on my long experience in the Federal sector and the 10 years I have spent as a consultant and trainer. In the latter capacity, I have taught classes in many Federal agencies, and have heard similar concerns expressed about the effectiveness of supervisors, and of management in general, in most of them.

The widely-perceived reluctance on the part of many supervisors to deal with problem employees and other workplace issues, and management’s apparent unwillingness to hold them accountable when they don’t, has undoubtedly contributed to the cynicism I see among many Federal employees.

The article went on to say that:

"Employees showed concern…about measures that are in place to deal with poor performers. About 36 percent of employees disagreed or strongly disagreed that ‘in my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve.’ About 32 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with that statement.

Results also were more balanced on overall agency leadership. While almost 40 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their agency leaders ‘generate high levels of motivation and commitment,’ more than 32 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed."

I find those numbers to be a bit more consistent with my experience and observations.

I also hear from supervisors who say they were willing to tackle problems such as poor performance but were not supported in those efforts, causing them to believe that top management would rather not "rock the boat," and get into a major hassle with an employee, even if that means carrying some poor performers year after year – and sometimes trying to foist them off on others — rather than dealing with them.

The more reading I did the more obvious it became that I had bitten off more than I could chew (not for the first time). For one thing, all supervisors are generally thought of as being part of the management team and employees who comment don’t always distinguish clearly between their supervisors and agency management.

While management practices are targeted in many articles, and cartoonist Scott Adams of Dilbert fame has made a fortune poking fun at management’s foibles and mindless bureaucracy, the word "management" is too generic and too amorphous to get my brain around. Accordingly, I decided to narrow the focus of this series of articles (having determined that there was too much material to cover in one) to first-line supervisors, since that position is where the "rubber meets the road" (to borrow the old Firestone tires theme) between management and employees and is often a major steppingstone to the management ranks.

If you have concerns about the state of supervision in the Federal government, you are by no means alone. For example, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) published in 2003 a comprehensive report titled "First-Line Supervisors in the Federal Service: Their Selection, Development, and Management."
The NAPA report began with an Executive Summary that provided some context:

"As the demands on federal leaders have grown, their numbers have significantly declined, in total and as a percent of the federal workforce. There were 77,134 fewer leaders in 2001 compared to 1991, a 28% reduction. At the same time, the average age has increased and retirement is available to many. An Academy survey found that more first-line supervisors would opt to retire on or before their eligibility date (45%) than would keep working (34%)…"

You may recall, particularly if you are or were a supervisor, the "Reinventing Government" initiative under Clinton-Gore. One of its principal objectives, which I think has continued under Bush-Cheney, was "flattening" organizations by removing (theoretically) unnecessary layers of supervision. In the agencies I was with, this sometimes took the form of changing supervisory positions to team leaders. There was just one little problem: in a number of cases, the duties of the former supervisors didn’t change, only their titles did. Whether or not the term "smoke and mirrors" would apply, supervisory ratios soon looked a lot better in more than a few agencies.

You may also remember the concept of "rightsizing" under several administrations. While some of you may have had different experiences, rightsizing always meant downsizing in every agency for which I worked.

"The selection, development, and performance management of the estimated 125,000 federal first-line supervisors must be significantly strengthened in most agencies. Currently, there are very few candidate development programs as most agencies select the most competent technician for supervisory openings without considering leadership capability. Training often is provided, yet not integrated into a comprehensive approach that develops future leaders. Further, supervisor performance management rarely has the same fundamental and specific focus that executive management has." (emphasis added)

The highlighted concern is essentially the same one that I first heard shortly after I joined the Federal government in late 1970. That issue surfaced repeatedly throughout my Federal career. In my experience, it was not unusual for the best technician to apply for a first-line supervisor position based less on interest in the job than on the perception that it was the only feasible way to advance his/her career and make more money. It was often said that such selections created a "double whammy" for the organization by taking away its best technician and saddling it with a poor supervisor.

Some agencies recognized this problem and, particularly under demonstration projects, allowed for the best technicians to progress to grades and pay levels that were roughly equivalent to what they could attain as supervisors. However, NAPA found that agencies filling supervisory positions are still likely to value technical expertise above leadership capability, which tells me that not much has changed.

NAPA’s principal findings were as follows:

"First-line supervisors are the federal government’s largest corporate leadership asset in sheer numbers and direct impact. Yet they must be more adequately prepared and supported to perform at the level that current and future needs require. Supervisors function at the point where public policy becomes action, and they directly represent management’s voice to non-supervisory federal employees. As such, their behavior and job performance are a major determinant of organizational performance, workplace morale, and job satisfaction. They also influence employees’ decisions to remain in or leave an organization."

I think all of these points are valid. NAPA elaborated on several of them in its section called "The Price of Poor Supervision," which I will discuss in the next article.

"Supervisory jobs are becoming increasingly difficult to perform as the number of supervisors and managers declines. Expanding spans of control, exploding technological change, complex ‘people issues,’ and evolving workplace models challenge both novice and seasoned supervisors alike. Agreement on this finding is widespread among supervisors, the employees they supervise, the managers to whom they report, and the oversight agencies – U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), U.S. General Accounting Office* (GAO) – that review their performance." (*now U.S. Government Accountability Office)

Here again, I think NAPA’s observations are right on the money. During my Federal career, I was a first-line supervisor in five different agencies, so I have a real appreciation for how difficult the job can be — and it is far more complex and challenging now than it was when I was a supervisor, for all of the reasons stated by NAPA.

"With some exceptions, federal agencies do a poor job of managing this corporate asset, beginning with the selection process. Some agencies have excellent leadership development programs for identifying supervisory candidates, but most do not offer extensive preparation. Also, most supervisory jobs require technical competence, but technical abilities far outweigh leadership competencies as a selection factor. Too often, leadership potential is not even considered in this equation."

As noted earlier in this article, NAPA found major problems with the selection process for supervisory positions and documented the continuing presence of a long-time tendency to weigh technical abilities more heavily than leadership competencies.

"Federal agencies need to do a better job of developing and training supervisors. While some have successful training programs, it is uncommon for first-line supervisory training to be part of an agency’s comprehensive leader development program."

Because first-line supervisors are often the "feeder group" for higher-level management positions, it’s difficult for me to understand why their training would not be part of the agency’s comprehensive leader development program.

"Performance management is another area that needs significant improvement. A poor selection process, coupled with insufficient performance management (particularly of newly-minted leaders), help to explain the genesis of many leadership cadre shortcomings. Even employees with good leadership potential can fail because they are not routinely provided expectations of performance, and feedback and consequences of success or failure."

An employee must serve a probationary period before initial assignment as either a supervisor or manager becomes final. The length of the probationary period is normally one year. If the employee fails the supervisory probationary period, she/he must be returned to a non-supervisory position. Given the potential impact of a supervisor on a work unit, the supervisory probationary period is clearly a critical final test in the selection process and should be, but often is not, used to weed out ineffective supervisors.

In the next article, I will address what NAPA called "The Price of Poor Supervision"; talk about consensus characteristics/attributes of "good" and "bad" supervisors; and attempt to tie in my own experience ("lessons learned") and that of colleagues. I will also discuss the recent initiatives of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee with regard to supervisory training.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.