COMMENTARY

A new job description for supervisors

The government's retirement wave is a chance to rewrite supervisory roles

A recent report by the Merit Systems Protection Board, called “As Supervisors Retire: An Opportunity to Reshape Organizations,” starts with a fact that is obvious once you think about it: Because supervisors are older than the average federal employee, they are closer to retirement than the workforce as a whole.

However, the report goes on to make a significant point: The government’s current retirement wave should be seen as an opportunity to revitalize the supervisory function.

This is worth serious consideration. Several years ago, two of my students interviewed two groups of Harvard alumni, one from the Kennedy School for Government who were working for the federal government, and another from Harvard Business School who were working at Fortune 500 companies. They asked both groups about their job experiences. By far, the most dramatic difference in their responses related to the quality of first-line supervision. Those working in industry said they had great supervisors, while the ones working in government typically thought their supervisors micromanaged or ignored them.

Another group of students conducted research at several agencies and found that the quality of a team’s work, as rated by the second-line supervisor, was dramatically higher for teams that gave high ratings to their first-line supervisors than for ones that gave the supervisors low ratings. The researchers also found that the best predictors of a high rating of one’s first-line supervisor were the employee’s views of the supervisor’s mentoring and teaching skills.

Following the same line of thinking, the Merit Systems Protection Board argues that as the workforce becomes increasingly knowledge-based, supervisors need to move away from the traditional skills of dividing up assignments or proofreading written work. To quote the report, we need supervisors “who can instill pride in work by emphasizing the importance of assigned projects and showing how the work is important and relates to organizational goals” and by creating opportunities for “employees to be innovative and demonstrate creativity.” That differs from the traditional job description for supervisors.

Furthermore, if the Obama administration is to succeed in its effort to use performance measurement to improve agency performance and not simply as a paperwork drill between agency staff members and the Office of Management and Budget, supervisors must be enlisted to use performance measures on a daily basis to help them improve work-unit performance. The administration should be looking for ways to directly engage first-line supervisors in that effort. A good first step would be creating a governmentwide forum with supervisor reps from each agency to give the issue visibility and generate ideas for achieving those goals.

The report also presents an interesting piece of data from a 2007 survey: The larger the number of employees a supervisor was responsible for, the less time he or she spent making strategic hiring decisions or developing employee capabilities. That is a “hidden ‘cost’ of assigning more employees to a supervisor than can be effectively managed,” the report states.

The board is right: Supervision is crucial to agency success, and we shouldn’t miss this opportunity to reshape organizations.

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

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