Workforce morale can be sapped by unskillled managers

Lack of governmental focus on managerial skills can lead to dissatisfaction, study says

Steve Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

The Merit Systems Protection Board, which produces many excellent studies of workplace management issues in government, has engaged in the push to enhance the quality of first-line federal management by releasing a report titled “A Call to Action: Improving First-Level Supervision of Federal Employees.”

Two of the best projects conducted by my second-year students have involved the quality of first-line supervision. In one project, the students asked second-line supervisors to rate the quality of the first-line teams they oversaw. The students found that the better the job the frontline employees felt their first-line supervisor was doing, the higher the rating the second-line supervisor gave for the performance of the frontline team.

In another project, the students compared the job perceptions of recent Kennedy School of Government graduates working in the federal government with recent Harvard Business School grads working for Fortune 500 companies. The biggest difference was the perceived quality of their immediate supervisors — no prize for the correct guess about which group was far more satisfied with their supervisors.

In its latest report, MSPB cites an analysis of 1,500 scholarly papers about organizational performance improvement that concluded that “the most effective way to improve organizational performance is to improve first-level supervision.”

The report includes both diagnosis and prescription. Based on a review of postings for first-line supervisory jobs, the researchers show that in government, new supervisors are mainly chosen for their technical abilities, not for their skills — or even interest — in managing a team. That failure has consequences: Of frontline employees who reported that their supervisor has “good management skills only,” 90 percent reported overall satisfaction with their supervisor. In contrast, of those reporting that their supervisors had “good technical skills only,” a mere 38 percent were satisfied.

Government not only tends to choose supervisors based on technical rather than management skills but also falls down in training people in supervision. A third of new supervisors reported that they received no relevant training in their first year on the job. And of those who did receive training, only 26 percent said they had been trained in developing performance goals and standards, 24 percent in providing feedback and coaching, and 16 percent in improving productivity. New regulations promulgated by the Office of Personnel Management in December 2009 require that all new supervisors receive training within a year.

Those findings reflect what I have elsewhere referred to as a doer culture rather than a manager culture in the federal government. In companies, some engineers aspire to be the best working engineer around, while others seek an engineering management track. But in government, it seems every engineer aspires to be good at bench engineering and views management as a departure from real work. That is a problem for getting good engineers to manage contracts, something often regarded as a punishment. For the federal government to be well managed, we first have to take management seriously.

Unlike some other management challenges the government faces, the task of improving first-line supervision is relatively easy. Selecting and fostering better first-line supervisors is not rocket science. On the other hand, because there are so many first-line supervisors in the government, that change must come through hundreds of local decisions to improve things, not from a central mandate.

For organizations that are serious about improvement, MSPB's “Call to Action” is a good starting point.


About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

Cyber. Covered.

Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Fri, May 3, 2013 Robert Bacal Canada

I know this is an older article, and I concur that some of the largest impact points on morale occur between the employee and immediate supervisor. Skilled supervisors can bring employees through crises and challenges, while unskilled ones cannot, which makes it more important in this era of 2013 with budget issues across almost ALL jurisdictions. Morale seems to have dropped over the last three years. Robert Bacal

Mon, Oct 4, 2010 Just the truth

It is a myth to say that supervisors are currently selected based on technical rather than soft skills. What I've ben seeing is: it is only based on "kiss up and push down" ability. As a matter of fact Most of the bad managers, or leaders lack a true technical competence although they may have a technical title. Engineers today are not allowed to do engineering work, but only to support superior's decision. We need a call to action for leadership reform, that must be executed by true leaders, who are self motivated by a passion for reform.

Tue, Sep 21, 2010 mike moxcey Fort Collins, CO

The problem with supervision starts much farther up the chain. Personally, I think we need to get away from the Peter Principle system of promotion and have separate manager/worker tracks where a supreme worker can get GS-13 or -14 pay while moving up in his specialty skill without having to divert into mgmt. Of course, he'd have to work for GS-7 project managers or supervisors occasionally but that's okay. Football teams do it. Intel Corp. does it.

Mon, Sep 13, 2010

As a former employee of MSPB--it's an agency that should take it's own advice when it comes to mentoring, coaching and recognizing the potential of it's employees!

Mon, Sep 13, 2010

There are several people I know that have been excellent managers in past lives but won't take management positions because they don't like being owned(on call 24/7)., instead I see those that go into management are the ones that like to pass the work on to others and then hang the others out to dry when IT hits the fan and move on to other projects or divisions. NOTE TO TOP 5 LEVELS OF MANAGEMENT - The cream doesn't always rise to the top and this might include you. If you really want ot know how your employees feel about you and your management team do an anonymous survey asking for honest feedback on each person individually.

Show All Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group