A Modest Proposal For Improving Federal Supervision

As someone who teaches seminars relating to Federal performance appraisals, it’s become clear we don’t have a clue how to evaluate/appraise supervisors. It’s just as clear to me that their performance has everything to do with an agency’s success or failure. This article proposes both a starting point and how their performance can be improved.

As someone who teaches seminars relating to Federal performance appraisals, it’s become abundantly clear we don’t have a clue how to evaluate/appraise supervisors.
It’s just as clear to me that their performance has everything to do with an agency’s success or failure. This article proposes both a starting point as to how they can be more objectively evaluated while at the same time suggesting how their performance can be improved.
Counting on Metrics
The current philosophy, demanding each Federal management official contribute their fair share to the agency’s overall goals and objectives, on the surface seems a reasonable idea. In practice, however, such calculations seldom occur and, if they did, might be of questionable validity.  I discussed this in a previous article published on FedSmith.
Organizational metrics are fickle – especially when delegated down the chain. For example, if budgets are cut 5% across the board, not all supervisors will experience equal impact regarding their goals. Likewise, if senior management settles an appeal by placing a horrible employee under your supervision, shouldn’t someone expect that action to affect your metrics?
More importantly, most managers seldom keep such quantitative data regarding their subordinate supervisors.
The law governing most Federal performance appraisals is 5 USC Chapter 43.  It was passed by Congress in 1978 and implemented by agencies in 1981. This system of critical elements and objective performance standards is predicated on this same philosophy (Management By Objectives or MBO) of cascading goals and objectives.  Over almost three decades it has proven unrealistic and impractical – resulting in evaluations that have lacked the objectivity consultants continue to imagine.
Subjective appraisals are the norm for thousands of Federal supervisors. The EEO critical element [see https://www.fedsmith.com/2007/11/27/evaluating-eeo-as-if-really-mattered/ ] has proven an embarrassing example. Front line managers have been rated at various levels by bosses who often understand no more about EEO than the folks they evaluate. I haven’t found a case where objective data was used in making such evaluations.
What  Ails Us Dr. Peter?
This brings to mind the Peter Principle – one beautifully crafted sentence in a book by the same name and authored by Laurence Peter. That sentence reads, “In a hierarchical organization, people eventually rise to their level of incompetence.”  It was written to evoke smiles of painful familiarity. Who hasn’t had a boss that was in over his/her head?
Assuming Dr. Peter’s assertion is correct, the complications resulting from subjective evaluations of supervisors and managers are compounded. Not only will our leaders be evaluated by impressions (some call it a “beauty contest”) but those evaluating them may not be competent to judge. If they were, after all, wouldn’t they be maintaining objective metrics regarding their own subordinates’ performance?  In reality, there’s a good likelihood that their own leadership skills are questionable.
Matters of Taste
As if subjectivity and incompetence up the chain of leadership weren’t enough, an additional obstacle to evaluating the first level of management stems from the difficulty of knowing what makes a good boss better than a bad one.  Leadership is defined by a different book every month.  Decades ago when I studied management, we were discussing Frederick Taylor’s theories know as “Scientific Management” and Douglas McGregor’s concepts of “Theory X” and “Theory Y” …and then came “Total Quality Management”.
Reasonable people disagree on what managers are supposed to do to maximize their subordinates’ effectiveness. Is the best manager one who pushes his people or persuades them? Which is more important – results or morale? Can a great boss be a poor writer/speaker?  Is micro-management a symptom of failed leadership or needed involvement?  I can give you my opinions, but cannot definitively answer these questions.  Our experiences, values, and perspectives color our definition of a good supervisor.
A matter of Real Importance
So, to catch up with my own thinking, we’ve got a high probability of subjective appraisal criteria, a potential for unqualified raters, and unclear definitions of what success looks like.  As if these obstacles weren’t enough, I have yet another – mentioned at the start of this article.  Front-line managers are crucially important folks.
Whatever you consider good leadership to be, it can make or break teams and organizations.  When competent people work for supervisors whose leadership they question they become disenchanted with their jobs.  If they can, they leave.  On the flip side, I estimate that I was 20-30% more productive when working for a boss I liked and respected.  Some inspired me.  Better bosses make for better mission accomplishment.
So what can we do to evaluate supervisors and managers more effectively?  I have two preliminary suggestions.  Both require our leaders to stretch in order to achieve ratings they desire.  After all, good grades have always required levels of effort we might otherwise fail to put forth.
What a quarter might purchase
First, as the Merit Systems Protection Board has informed us, “employee engagement is clearly linked to organizational performance.”  I suggest that no supervisor or manager be given a rating above average (“Level 3”, “Fully Successful”, and the like) unless s/he has had quarterly performance reviews with every subordinate.
Our teachers in grade school managed to grade dozens of students in this fashion.  It provided important feedback and often motivated us.  Admittedly, those weren’t face-to-face encounters.  By the same token, agencies are workplaces and most Federal managers are paid more than most school teachers.  Such quarterly meetings can be entered in one’s calendar at the start of a rating cycle and the rest is relatively easy.  If supervisors can make it to meetings and dentist appointments, they can remind themselves to conduct 4 sit-downs per year with each employee
A quarterly review system in exchange for higher ratings also represents an appraisal quid pro quo.  This is important.  Unlike the vague demands of generic evaluation criteria, this one’s rather specific and requires no complicated metrics or tracking systems. Verification is as simple as asking for the notes from these quarterly encounters. Such reviews would be just one of several specific criteria needing attention if higher ratings are to be earned. It’s definable, achievable, and useful.
Dear Diary…
Another work habit our managers should demonstrate is regular documentation.  In yet another FedSmith article I recommended a supervisory diary or “black book”.   For ratings above average, why not insist that our leaders jot down 10 minutes of workday impressions as a habit.  If they do, they are likely to become more focused on the supervision.  People and events are better noticed when log entries are coming at day’s end.
If diaries were included in a performance indicator, objective, or standard for levels above Fully Successful, Level 3 or C – most supervisors would start doing it.  If they did, this (and other desirable work habits) could make for better leaders. Such diaries would also enhance the quality of the aforementioned quarterly reviews. The aggregate of these notes would also lead to more meaningful distinctions among subordinates come rating time.
Breaking a Habit of Hindsight
These two manners of performing the supervisory function should be of interest to FedSmith readers who are interested in improving agency appraisals. They focus on improving work habits that make folks successful rather than tallying outcomes after they year is done. Outcomes can be problematic. Work habits can be taught and crafted.
Instead of focusing on the previous year’s results, appraisal criteria like these could influence (and potentially improve) such outcomes. Just as the habit of brushing teeth and using seat belts can be instilled, so can these. But just like parents who fail to model the very routines they require of their kids, “Do as I say, not as I do.” won’t suffice. After all, wouldn’t these same work habits apply to those who supervise supervisors?
Performance evaluations can be used to better effect than just rating people.  They should make us better at what we do.  When appraisal techniques focused on work habits are taught in a classroom setting, managers in the field are intrigued, if not excited by the prospect. As one participant from the National Park Service put it:

“I appreciate the focus on the individual employee and effort to actually improve… job performance.  I buy it and honestly think the employees will.  I often get the question, ‘How can I improve and get a higher rating.’  It was frustrating for me to realize, given what I put in front of them that I couldn’t give them a concrete answer.  This provides a way to provide them with that and allows me to specify the most important ways or “hows” to accomplish the job…”

Not a Cure for Cancer
As with the example in my EEO article, these ideas are not panaceas. They won’t convert disingenuous bosses into honest men and women. They won’t tame the vicious, or provide implants for the spineless. In making these suggestions, I do not presume to reform the government’s vast (and often oppressive) management structure – from political appointees down to the front lines of civil service.
Rather than proposing theoretical solutions like MBO, improving leadership (and performance appraisals) needs to begin with practical first steps. This very different approach to individual standards might serve to develop better supervisors as well as rating them. Positive work habits like quarterly reviews and diaries can be used to distinguish good bosses from mediocre ones. They can also enhance the objectivity of their ratings.
Obviously, there are many more manners of supervising than these. Other ideas are welcome. What other practical, verifiable work habits should we be encouraging?

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.