Why Have Supervisors?

We take our best employees and pay them more money to do less of what made them the best. Moreover, we put them in leadership positions when their leadership skills are often untested and unknown. So how do managers make the investment in their salaries and benefits a worthwhile expense?

I wish I had a quarter (inflation) for every time a supervisor has told me, “I shouldn’t have to tell him how to do his job.”  Just as common is the comment, “Telling an employee how to do her job is micromanagement.”  Then there’s “He’s paid enough so he shouldn’t need any help from me.”  My response to these perspectives has become predictable over years, “So why have supervision?” or “What are we paying you to do?”

I teach supervisors and managers how to write performance standards (or “indicators” under NSPS) that focus less on results and more on work habits.  I advise managers to look at what’s most in need of fixing and prescribing the fix.  An example of such criteria can be found at the end of my last article. (See Evaluating EEO As If It Really Mattered) In my experience, this comes down to basic workplace economics.

Assume the merit system works

The question in this article’s title is a real one.  Consider a typical Federal supervisor – whether an Engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation, an Aircraft Mechanic with the National Guard, or a Nurse in a VA Medical Center.  Most of them were promoted from the ranks.  Some got promoted by looking the part and others by flattering the people who selected them.  Agencies also select those least respected to become leaders.  … and then there are those who ascended by being knowledgeable and reliable in their field.

So, let’s assume there’s a need for a new supervisor with the Bureau of Reclamation in Denver.  Moreover, Sally, the best Engineer applying actually got selected.  She was a Civil Engineer, GS-11, Step 4 at the time.  Now she’s beginning as a Supervisory Engineer, GS-12, Step 1.  According to 2007 pay charts (and accounting for Denver locality pay), her agency is paying her an about $5.5K ($67,572 – $62,017) in additional salary to be supervisor.  That’s probably why she applied.

What supervision costs

Now my thinking gets a bit weird but follow me for a minute.  This person was the best Engineer in that part of her agency.  While a GS-11, all of her work time was devoted to engineering.  But as a supervisor, she may only perform as an Engineer 50% of the time.  In other words, the government’s paying her more money for less engineering, which is what she does best.  

Look at it this way, if her salary as an Engineer, GS-11 was about $62K, then spending only 50% of her time doing that kind of work realizes the agency about $31K of productive work in her field.  Given the higher salary, that leaves an annual investment of that same amount, $36.5K, in “supervision”.  

For those of you versed in accounting, that $36,563.50 looks like “overhead”.  There’s the office space, the electric bill, the furniture… and supervision/management.  We pay for all of them even though they don’t produce the work that accomplishes the mission. The belief is that we couldn’t get along without ‘em.

Why let the cream rise to the top?

The example above is more typical than not.  It’s similar for the nurse and aircraft mechanic.  In the latter’s case, a former mechanic is usually advised to close his toolbox and spend 100% of his day “supervising”.  While white-collar employees may advance to “working supervisors”, in the blue collar world, a supervisor (WS) is usually a full-time leader and no longer turning wrenches.

Regardless of where you work, the model remains the same. We take our best employees and pay them more money to do less of what made them the best.  Moreover, we put them in leadership positions when their leadership skills are often untested and unknown.  

Why would the government (and private sector too) do this?  It seems illogical.  Surely, it’s not an investment in accurately completing time and attendance records.  That’s GS-4 work.  If the supervisory job is to compile data for his group’s activity reports (weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.), an Administrative Assistant (GS-7 or GS-9) might do a better job than someone trained to do engineering. …and as for attending the inevitable meetings, why have your best engineer sit in a room full of managers discussing matters (most of which don’t even concern her) when she could be working in her profession.

Looking for payback

None of that is worth $36,563.50 per year. In fact, I’ve found only one way to account for the difference in time/money the government invests in supervision. The knowledge, skill, and ability of the selectee should be directed back toward the people they supervise.  It’s integral to leadership and management.

No doubt, this article will generate comments regarding callous, ignorant, arbitrary, brown-nosing, meddlesome, and/or self-absorbed bosses.  They’re out there.  Some readers will wonder if I’m Pollyanna’s lost brother.  By the same token, I had 6 supervisors in my 13+ years as a Fed.  Most of them were good people, trying to do a good job.  I’m guessing that a most had never been asked to read a book on leadership or supervision.

“Why have supervisors?” Simple economics dictate that managers earn their keep by positively influencing the work of their subordinates. It’s the only sensible way to account for paying more money to our best people at the very moment they are removed from the workforce.  Their job is to have super vision – not to be tied up in meetings and be buried in administrative paperwork.  Looking often and deeply in the direction of those they supervise should be valued, not avoided.

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 trainingfeds.com.