Better performance management starts with better supervisors

It won't be easy to fix the broken performance management system

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said recently that he believes the federal government’s system for evaluating employee performance is broken and must be reformed.

“Our formal performance reviews are infrequent and rote,” Berry said March 16 during a keynote address at the Interagency Resources Management Conference. “Employees may be getting useful feedback from their manager, but the formal review process seems to take place in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, where everyone is above average. If that doesn’t make our performance ratings suspect, I don’t know what would.”

Improving performance management is one of OPM’s long-term goals, and Berry said efforts are already under way to develop a new system that sets clear, measurable goals; allows for constructive and continuous feedback; and appropriately recognizes employees’ successes.

The government currently manages performance with four tools: standards, reviews, ratings and awards.

Experts agree with Berry that the government’s performance management system is unclear and subjective and needs attention. As a result, they offered suggestions on how the government can begin the challenging task of closing the gap on performance management.

Jon Desenberg, senior policy director at the Performance Institute, said he thinks the government’s biggest problem when it comes to overseeing employee performance is that it has too many poor managers.

“We pick people to manage who aren’t really trained as managers,” Desenberg said. To improve employee performance, federal managers must demonstrate their ability to lead, develop goals with their employees and follow through on those goals, he added.

He recommended that managers receive training to learn the necessary skills.

Weak managers also cause employee performance plans to suffer because they fail to align the plans with the agency's mission, Desenberg said, adding that some supervisors simply copy the same plan from one year to the next.

Although Berry has backed off from the idea of implementing a federal pay-for-performance system, it is almost certain that the issue will come up again in the future. Desenberg and others said inadequate supervision caused the government’s last pay-for-performance attempt — the Defense Department’s National Security Personnel System — to fail.

“It all rides on the supervisor to pull [performance management] off and be effective at what he [or she] does,” said Howard Risher, a pay and performance consultant. “Their effectiveness is usually the most important determinant of how well people perform.”

In that vein, the President’s Management Council launched an initiative in February to strengthen the Senior Executive Service, but the outcome remains to be seen.

Going beyond training

However, Risher said he doesn’t think training managers is the answer. “There’s actually research that shows how quickly people forget what they get trained on,” he said. “For training to change behavior, that new behavior has to be reinforced” — by agency leaders, for example. 

Instead of training, Risher said the government should consider hiring management coaches — a popular practice in the private sector. Enabling employees to provide feedback on their supervisors is another strategy that is common at corporations and could help the government, he added.

The government must also strictly enforce consequences for supervisors and employees who aren’t performing well, experts said. Berry alluded to that issue in his remarks at the management conference.

Risher said the government might want to consider switching from its widely used five-level rating system to a three-level scale to better differentiate high and low performers.

“There is no rating system out there that’s perfect,” he said. “One of the reasons for three levels is that it minimizes the problem of disagreements about ratings.”

In addition, government officials might want to establish management committees in which federal managers and supervisors must justify and defend the ratings they give their employees. Such an approach would ensure that managers take the process a lot more seriously, Risher added.

In addition, it’s important for agencies to empower employees by thoroughly explaining what’s expected of them. “In other words, tell employees what they’re supposed to do and let them figure out how to do it,” said Laura Langbein, a professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs. Employees "want autonomy over their own jobs."

About the Author

Alyah Khan is a staff writer covering IT policy.

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Reader comments

Wed, Apr 6, 2011

Where is the money for manager coaches coming from? If I end up replacing one team member for every three I lose from my already "do more with less" situation, there will be NO time for "coaching" unless I listen to tapes while I sleep. Or are you telling me I'm getting a coach instead of a replacement team member!

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