Rating the Rater

Supervisors have to conduct performance reviews of their employees, but what about reviewing the performance of the supervisors?

Last month, DPMAP activity reached its annual apex. For those outside of DoD, that unwieldy acronym stands for Defense Performance Management and Appraisal Program. April now marks the month when the performance of almost a million civilian employees of DoD is evaluated and reset for the coming rating year.

Meanwhile, most remaining Executive Branch agencies should have just concluded their mid-year performance reviews, as they remain on a fiscal year cycle. In all, a lot of time and focus was spent on performance appraisals in April. It can be a trying time for everyone involved, as appraisals are intended to answer one of the most basic questions arising in the workplace, “How am I doing?”

Front-line supervisors feel the burden

While many supervisors will need repeated reminders to conduct performance reviews, a greater struggle is getting their own bosses to perform the same exercise. After all, supervisors and managers were also to have been rated or reviewed last month. In my decades of experience, the higher one goes in leadership, the less attention is paid to critical elements and performance standards.

Outside of service centers (like those in the Social Security Administration, VA Benefits Administration, and the IRS) and a few other corners of the government where individual metrics are routinely harvested, ratings assigned by supervisors are subjective. Agency directives often speak to SMART performance standards, but rating most Feds by the numbers is impossible, worthless, or both. That is even more the case for supervisors.

Consider this: If an evaluation were based on standards that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound, why would a self-appraisal be asked of anyone? Back in my day, teachers graded us by data memorialized in grade books. Because they had data and defined standards (90-100% = A, etc.), self-evaluations would have been unnecessary distractions.

How the supervisor who is appraising your job performance is being evaluated by her/his own boss brings up several issues. Among them are: 1) the perspective of the rating official; 2) “supervisory element(s) that have been prescribed in most agencies; and 3) issues of supervisory style and leadership philosophy.

It all depends on your point of view

On many occasions, I’ve asked seminar participants (most of them supervisors and managers, “Who was the best boss you ever had… in government or elsewhere?” For those fortunate enough to recall several excellent bosses (myself included), the answer can take some time.

I then ask a various people to articulate just one reason why that person tops the list. Try it yourself. Among the answers I’ve heard with consistency are: integrity; listening skills; trust; courage; honesty; patience; and so on. We consider how these qualities are neither rare nor unattainable. I usually conclude the discussion by asking a follow-on question, “If I were to ask your subordinates to think of the best boss they ever had, how many would think of you?” While unsettling, I consider it a legitimate question.

The qualities of “best boss you ever had”; however, may have little relevance when supervisors are actually rated. After all, subordinates don’t evaluate their leadership when rating time comes around. The system is driven from the top down. The perspective of agency managers at the second level and above is necessarily different.

Like you, middle and senior managers want to be listened to, trusted and respected. Come appraisal time, however, those qualities are seen from the vantage point of a leader, not a follower. Front-line supervisors may find that their superiors place a greater on value loyalty, timely reports, and an absence of complaints, etc. – matters that differ greatly from the priorities of those being supervised.

The best boss you ever had, may not have been similarly appreciated by his/her superiors. Perspective matters.

The supervisory element

I have presented seminars on performance appraisals to many federal agencies over the years. All of them have one or more required supervisory critical elements. The genesis of the requirement dates back to the mid-1980s, when the Office of Personnel Management realized that supervisors across the government were being rated in categories (“critical elements”) that made no reference to supervision or leadership. As referenced above, the emphasis on accountability obscured the need for leadership.

In an attempt to correct this glaring omission, the required supervisory critical element was born. It has morphed from correcting an embarrassing oversight into a CYA exercise that has everything to do with accountability and little to do with leadership or performance appraisal. 

Consider this generic one that is being applied to all Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) supervisors:

The critical leadership performance element applies to supervisors, managers, and non-bargaining team leaders, performance plans. Performance of supervisory/managerial duties will be carried out in accordance with regulatory requirements and other OpDiv/StaffDiv policies governing the duties and responsibilities listed below:

  • Ensures 90% of employee performance plans have at least one element aligned to the organization’s mission and goals and are appraised against clearly-defined and communicated performance standards to allow for a rating once a minimum performance period has been reached within the current performance cycle.
  • Ensures timely and regular feedback of employees’ performance on at least three occasions to include constructive suggestions for improvement, ensuring the employee understands expectations.
  • Addresses employee performance and conduct issues in a timely and appropriate manner with guidance from Labor and Employee Relations staff and in accordance with HHS and government-wide policies and guidelines.
  • Promotes high performance through use of employee development activities, balanced workload, and stretch goals; appropriately rewards high performance in accordance with HHS performance and awards policies.
  • Complies with EEO, Reasonable Accommodation, and Anti-Harassment policies/procedures, communicates these policies and processes to employees at least once per year, and completes all required supervisory training within the first year, with refresher training every 3 years.
  • Takes substantive measures to create and maintain an inclusive environment, which supports a workplace with a diversity of perspectives.
  • Works to remove barriers to successful employee performance, seeking resolution of workplace conflicts, and escalating issues, if appropriate.
  • Other aspects described by the rating official.

If you didn’t know what CYA (in the previous paragraph) meant, you do now. Rest assured, this DHHS example is just one of many I could have chosen to illustrate the current use of supervisory elements. They have become checklists of organizational priorities and little to do with leadership style or success.

As with others I could have chosen, this example is riddled with technical problems such as standards within an element, “sub-elements” that courts have found questionable, compliance items that don’t lend themselves to evaluation, etc. Just reading it, however, leaves me wondering what management really values in a supervisor’s job performance. Just reading most such canned supervisory elements must leave supervisors baffled as to what a terrific supervisor should be doing. 

Solving for X and Y

Even if the supervisory element were made clear, what would be asked of someone who leads others? When evaluating a contract specialist or a welder or an engineer, the job is well defined. The way work is planned, executed and completed varies, but each of those professions has commonalities from one workplace to another. Aircraft welding often involves lots of work with aluminum, while shipboard work has more to do with steel. Nevertheless, non-supervisory jobs commonly have transferable training and skills.

Supervision is different. Is an effective leader focused primarily on teamwork and individual empowerment – believing that happy workers are more productive? …or is it better to push people in ways that foster competition resulting in rewards and punishments? Similarly, is it better to reward and punish children for their school grades, or is it more important to encourage them to do their best? While we all have our own opinions, these questions regarding leadership style are longstanding and legitimate.

I attended a college course in management decades ago. Among many topics we covered was Douglas McGregor’s two models of leadership or management. He labeled them Theory X and Theory Y. McGregor and many others have observed that trust and independence may motivate one person while consequences relating to success and failure may prove more effective with another. Legendary chair and chief executive of General Electric believed (and demonstrated) that fear is a strong motivator that leads to organizational success. He wasn’t popular, but the company thrived.

There is no right way to raise children and the successes/failures of those kids are not necessarily attributable to their parents. Second-level supervisors and above are in a position to judge, but may not be clear regarding their own management style, nor what they want from the leaders who report to them.

Remembering Rule #1

Long ago, I was asked to speak at a conference on the subject of performance appraisals. My talk focused on how performance standards can be written with a focus on improving individual performance, rather than trying to accurately rate it. I proposed and detailed a different approach to critical elements and performance standards. Many of my peers in the audience seemed mildly interested.

When my time was up, and the tepid applause had dissipated, the conference host took the mike and said, “In my experience, there’s only one performance standard: Please the Boss.” I left the podium, somewhat deflated upon hearing that dismissive comment. Her remark, however, has never left me. When considering the challenges inherent when evaluating supervisors, pleasing the boss may prove the most realistic perspective and the most successful strategy.

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.