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


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