When someone gets promoted into a supervisory position, what’s the first reaction? Probably excitement over a new title and a salary increase. What may come later is this question of exactly how employees will be supervised.
After all, the promotion was likely based on mastery of a set of technical skills, or accomplishment of agency objectives, rather than an innate ability to work with people. In fact, if you dig down a bit, it may become apparent that the new supervisor is actually not overly thrilled about managing people.
The prototypical story is of the new supervisor driving home a few weeks after taking the promotion and slapping his or her forehead, saying, “What in the world was I thinking?”
Working with people is, without a doubt, the most complicated part of most supervisory jobs. Unlike machines, employees are creative, adaptive, emotional, fallible, curious, inconsistent and meaning-making (this latter phrase means things need to make sense to them for them to get behind whatever is happening). Working with people is almost always more complicated than balancing a budget or programming software.
These complicating factors can trigger a variety of responses in supervisors, many of them stress-based. As we all know, stress-based responses can equal poor behavior. Between a little bit of trepidation and next to no formal training and support, new supervisors are asked to do a really hard job for which they’re often not properly equipped.
No wonder we hear so many stories about things gone wrong in supervision.
From more than 10 years’ experience in working with federal agency supervisors I’ve identified seven big issues that greatly affect productivity, culture, relationships and performance I’m going to outline them at a very high level below, and then, explore them more fully in posts that we’ll publish here over the next few weeks. They’re certainly not the only challenges, but they are a good place to start.
So, what are the “Big Seven”?
- I don’t know how to deal with poor performance in employees. This is something of an Achilles’ Heel in the federal government. Surveys indicate it is consistently one of the biggest stumbling points for supervisors. There are many reasons supervisors step back from tackling this problem, including lack of awareness, fear of the consequences and lack of support from above. Whatever the cause, the consequences are predictable: impaired agency performance, inequity in workloads and a bad reputation as a supervisor who puts up with the sub-standard.
- I just do what I’m told. Many supervisors feel they are merely the executors of others’ will. They feel little autonomy, initiative, sense of innovation or motivation to change. Supervisors have demands placed on them from above but very often no authority to execute their tasks any differently from how they’ve been laid out. They may feel very much in the middle, caught between what employees feel they need to succeed, and the demands rolling down from above. One sure way to lose respect and credibility as a supervisor is when employees sense he or she is not going to bat for them, but passively and silently handing down whatever has been decided above.
- I didn’t pick this team. Supervisors often complain about the hand they are dealt, having had little or no involvement in the hiring or selection process. This can reduce the sense of commitment or motivation to ensuring the success of that team, or produce a variety of self defeating justifications around poor performance.
- I’m suffering from political whiplash. One of the realities of working for a federal agency is that priorities shift usually every four years with the election cycle. Not only do supervisors need to contend with political leaders’ new and different agendas as they get up to speed, engage, and then look for their next appointment, but they must adjust programs to accommodate special projects designed to create a legacy. Given that many federal workers are tenured for the long-term this constant changing course generates particular resistance when an initiative is seen as being a fad or not cognizant of, or respectful of, organizational reality. The whiplash feel comes particularly when supervisors recognize a new initiative that is actually a repackaged version of an old initiative, which may or may not have worked. “Here we go again,” and “We can wait this out” are familiar organizational refrains.
- What matters is my turf. The “us-versus-them” mentality of federal agency culture is played out all too clearly when it comes to protecting territory or keeping funding. Supervisors often are given little incentive to promote intra-agency success and instead focus on protecting their ‘turf.” This leads to the creation of silos, conflict, a lack of understanding of other parts of the agency, and sub-optimal agency outcomes.
- If the employees just … One of the most common (mis)perceptions about federal employees is that they’re the problem. Supervisors (and others) often point the finger of blame at employees, without really exploring the often complicated factors that affect performance. For example, it is now documented that the supervisors themselves often don’t feel they have the information needed to share with employees to inform good work and good decision making. More on this below.
- Where do I go from here? Despite the long tenure of most federal employees, there’s a surprising lack of attention given to career planning. With promotion paths that favor time in grade and support of the status quo, there’s little incentive to strategically look at this limited unit of time called “my career,” to think about what the best work is – where interest and ability unite –or even pursue training and career development.
Despite the diversity of challenges surfaced here, I believe that they are underpinned by one common problem – an information deficit for federal supervisors, as alluded to above. A 2008 study on The Power of Federal Employee Engagement, conducted by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, found that the lack of information and the inability to communicate was cited by over half of first-level supervisors as a reason for dissatisfaction. When supervisors don’t know what they need to know, all kinds of things can happen. Bottom line: they cannot really support change, and they cannot make a good case to employees around what needs to happen.
And that only matters if you believe employees – as human beings — need to understand the why behind the what – another topic to be explored in future posts.
No related posts.