“Study: Feds don’t like their agency leaders ” – Federal Times 4/30/12 (Explain)

Home Forums Leadership and Management “Study: Feds don’t like their agency leaders ” – Federal Times 4/30/12 (Explain)

This topic contains 12 replies, has 7 voices, and was last updated by  Mark Hammer 8 years, 3 months ago.

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  • #159961

    “When it comes to empowering, motivating and communicating with employees, top federal executives fare worse in the eyes of their employees than do corporate leaders. That is the conclusion of a new study by the Partnership for Public Service, which analyzed data gathered in last year’s federal employee satisfaction survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management.” Full story here.

    How do you understand these findings?

  • #159985

    Mark Hammer

    It’s pretty simple, really. Distance fosters suspicion, and closeness/contact fosters trust. And trust helps just about everything.

    With the exception of the really big ones (Wal-Mart, Frito-Lay, et al), not many private-sector employers are as big as a great many federal agencies covered in the FEVS, and the biggest agencies influence that overall 43% figure heavily. Smaller employers have the advantage of being less isolated/insulated from staff, and it becomes easier to trust senior management…assuming they do enough to earn and maintain that trust. I’ll wager that a great many employees of the largest, most geographically-decentralized agencies have never met their senior management (in contrast to the supervisor and middle management whom they HAVE met).

    I would also wager that a great many of the policies and directives that employees in large agencies, scattered all across the continent and abroad, might receive seem pretty darn opaque, and likely aren’t explained particularly well. Now, if you happen to be middle management and you’re in the loop with respect to the emergence of those policies and directives, you find them pretty straightforward. If you’re not middle management and are out of the loop, unless someone goes out of their way to explain it to you (not a daily occurrence in many organizations), it will likely remain opaque and a source of suspicion.

    I think if we wanted a fair comparison, we would want to compare not private and public sector employees, but rather employees working for private and public sector organizations of comparable size and geographic distribution.

    That said, John Palguta makes some fair points about what gets communicated.

  • #159983

    Source: Partnership for Public Service, “Best Places To Work Challenge: The Federal Leadership Snapshot,” April 2012

    One could compare results between those scoring higher and lower – this is what PPS focuses on in its analysis.

    The table above is a screenshot from the Partnership For Public Service’s analysis of the 2011 findings.

    It shows that last year, there was a (huge) 14.6 point gap between satisfaction w/ supervisors and senior leaders.

    This leads to some clues as to why supervisors are comparatively more highly rated:

    * Performance incentive: Supervisors see their employees as a direct customer whose complaints can hurt their careers. They manage up, sideways, and down. Senior leaders don’t – they generally manage sideways and upward.

    * Physical proximity: Supervisors are confronted by employees every day. Senior leaders aren’t.

    * Empathy: Supervisors learn about their employees’ lives. Senior leaders don’t.

    Of course there are two methodological flaws with this kind of analysis:

    1. Senior leaders are leaders while supervisors are managers, so the kind of work they do is different. Specifically, leadership involves change which is inherently uncomfortable.

    2. Senior leaders serve the mission while managers serve the employees so that they can carry out the mission. So the evaluation criteria should be different. Just 42.6 percent said senior leaders “generate high levels of motivation and commitment” in 2011 – this clearly shows that something is wrong. If the people aren’t inspired then how can they do the work well? Meaning time and money are wasted on inefficiency, disengagement, infighting, etc.

    Another item to notice here is that between 2003-2011 satisfaction with supervisors went up 5.3 points (which is statistically meaningful though not dramatic) and satisfaction with senior leaders went up 6.6 points. Yet the score for senior leaders remains stuck below 50.

    This is a dangerous situation from a human capital perspective because the federal government is now seeing an influx of new recruits to power public service – who will inherently have higher expectations of leadership than those who have been with the agency for many years.

    Isn’t there a statistic showing that people tend to leave agencies by the 3-year mark? Could this be why?

    If new recruits aren’t inspired within the government, they will not stay and we won’t have a workforce to inspire.

  • #159981

    @Mark – to your point regarding internal communications, what puzzles me is that we know very well how important it is and yet we don’t fund or staff it to the same extent as external communications. How would you explain that?

    For my part I agree with those who say that all dysfunctionality ultimately makes some rational sense, you just have to find out what is being achieved through the dysfunction.

    -In the private sector – the goal is to make money – and the equation of inspired employees to higher productivity is easier to make: Happy pizza makers make more pizza and they don’t spit in it either. (Though this is not 100% perfect either because leaders hate it when they can’t control what employees think of them and internal communications forces a dialogue).

    -In the public sector – the goal is – what exactly? On a certain level mission performance is a goal, true. But performing the mission gets people angry, too. I think agencies can’t figure out how to handle disagreement in a way that keeps them out of the Washington Post and so they generally try not to say too much. And they fear that open dissension in the ranks will undermine the chain of command and lead to insubordination, potentially jeopardizing the mission, funding, etc.

    The TSA is a great example of this. I’m not justifying patdowns of 4-year-olds. But I do understand that terrorists are shoving plastic bombs into their bodies (read the newspaper) in an effort to escape metal detectors. As an American citizen i appreciate that we have to be paranoid to stave off the inevitable as long as possible. And as a former employee of DHS (CBP) I know how passionate the officers are about what they do. I know they stay up at night worrying that they will be the weak link in the chain that let the terrorist in.

    That said, if I were an employee of the TSA and DISAGREED with their policies I’m sure they would not want me talking about it openly, either internally or externally, because some of these must be very hard to follow.

    Ultimately to me what it comes down to is – set a goal – find a way to get to the goal – course-correct if it’s not working. Clearly w/ respect to internal communications it hasn’t been leveraged enough in government organizations.

  • #159979

    Mark Hammer

    If one looks at the survey results for those working at HQ vs a field office, results are consistently more positive about leadership for those at HQ than for those working in fields offices. We get the exact same thing here in Canada in our survey. And if you want to drill waaaayyyyy down to the nitty gritty, this set of tables – http://www.fedview.opm.gov/2011/Reports/SupvCompPCT.asp?AGY=ALL&amp… – will show you that confidence in leadership will vary with whether one is a manager, supervisor, or non-supervisor. Some pretty big differences there.

    It also bears noting that, for a chunk of those working at HQ, “senior management” IS their immediate supervisor, or at least their supervisor’s supervisor. As such, the government-wide gap between satisfaction with supervisor vs satisfaction with leadership will be severely attenuated for those at the management level. Will the gap be eliminated completely? I don’t know from the data publicly available (or at least my superficial combing through it), but I imagine not, simply because it is possible to have a “supervisor” (at whatever level that supervisor may be) who is straight up and decent with you but may appear to possess less of “the vision thing” than you hope for, or maybe just a different one.

    Lastly, take a look at the results by time-in-government (available in this report: http://www.fedview.opm.gov/2011FILES/2011_Report_by_Demographics_PDF.zip ) and you’ll see even bigger differences with respect to trust in and satisfaction with senior leadership. Ironically, where satisfaction/trust tends to increase with authority and proximity to leadership, it plummets with tenure. best case scenario is someone relatively new to government but working in conjunction with senior management at HQ. Worst case scenario is a “lifer” in a non-supervisory/management role in a field office.

    Of course the irony is that, as Danielle notes, risk of departure IS greatest during those first few years, despite attitudes being more positive and less cynical. The reason, as far as I can tell, is that when roots are shallow the winds of opportunity are more likely to blow you away.

  • #159977

    Mark Sullivan

    @Dannielle – I agree with and appreciate your point about focusing on the goal. The question of whether employees are ‘satisfied’ is somewhat opaque. the data only adds value if it helps illuminate whether leaders and supervisors are helping to build the capacity of staff to carry out the mission, and deliver on promised outcomes.

  • #159975

    Mark Hammer

    I taught university for a dozen years or so, and one of the hardest lessons I had to learn was to not resent, or be impatient with, September’s groups for not knowing what the kids from April knew. One’s first reflex is to think “C’mon, you guys know this already”, and want to pick up from where you left off before the summer intervened. Same thing happens on hobby forums where questions come up that you know have been fully covered previously many times over. You just don’t feel compelled or inspired to cover the same ground again and again and again.

    I think there is a similar sort of reflex in management circles wherein the large number of people who know much less than you, or much less than the employees you’re most familiar with, are similarly forgotten about. As I’ve experienced, it’s a very easy trap to slip into, and it takes work and dedication not to. We forget that there is a constant influx of people into our organizations who have precious little idea of how things fit together, or why we are doing X rather than Y.

    Here, I take my inspiration from the Passover Haggadah story of the four sons (the wise knowledge-seeker, the cynical and arrogant, the unaware and under-informed, and the one who doesn’t even know to ask the question), each of whom deserves an explanation tailored to them. All too often, communications addresses maybe one or two of them, but not all four.

    As to the clarity of the organizational goals, I think it is fair to say that many federal agencies have coherent goals at the abstract level, but for a variety of reasons may subsume a lot of functions you don’t think of as going together under the same banner and administration. For those who are cogs in the larger wheel, and don’t have as much opportunity to be regularly reminded of all the other cogs, it can be hard to see logic and commonality of purpose in all the things that “management” does. For non-supervisors, or people removed from HQ, it can feel like listening to the goings-on in another room through the door, thinking “What on earth are they doing in there?”. Management is IN the room, and non-management are on the other side of the door. That’s why the big gap in perceptions of leadership.

  • #159973

    Katy Johnson

    I disagree with the assessment of seniors as leaders and supervisors as managers. It doesn’t have to do with the level of one’s echelon. Cliched as it is, you lead people, and manage resources; the first is a subjective art, and the latter is an objective action. People are human resources & assets, granted, but the social/personality/emotional dynamic throws that whole “art” thing in there. Unfortunately, this is part of the problem with many bureaucracies- those in supervisory roles and higher often view themselves as “managers” and leave their human connection hats at home. Personally, I have noticed this tends to be more the case with straight civilians vs. those with at least a few years’ military experience, though I recognize that I am biased toward the latter. And it tends to be the case the higher or more removed from the “masses” you go.

    For anyone looking for some food for thought, I’d suggest checking out GovExec for a recent interview with Robert Gates- his recollections sum up (to me) how to lead effectively.

    Do agree with Mark Hammer’s take, that similarly-sized organizations would have been a good sample base.

  • #159971

    @Mark H.: Interesting reference to Passover. You are supposed to (literally – in Hebrew “Hakheh Es Shinav”) knock out the “evil” son’s teeth for his arrogant question and cynical attitude. I always had a problem with that. The evil son (daughter) is smart and could be good, but for some reason is disillusioned. The leader/manager/parent should try to bring him back. Usually internal communication plans totally ignore the children who ask questions angrily. (Maybe they are justified?)

    Also wanted to share that I have heard the attitude expressed from some leaders/managers that they are trying to “protect” employees by not sharing information. They worry that morale will suffer if people can see behind the curtain. This leads them to choose words very carefully when they talk. All of the above of course makes it look like they are either hiding something or are out of touch with the issues.

    Finally just pointing out some unconscious sexism here and how damaging it is from an operational/financial standpoint if left unchecked. A bias against bringing emotion into the workplace, and against valuing emotion workers, means that communication is normally reduced to an image exercise (superficial) and the listening/interaction part (which should be the backbone of what you say) is reduced to pre-campaign “audience research” that sits on the shelf. Socially we know that mothers are devalued and what is their primary job? Bingo – emotion work.

    The outcome of ignoring emotion work is that “actual” work – e.g. the project – doesn’t get done and we sit around scratching our heads wondering why.

    On a deeper level the outcome of ignoring emotion work – e.g. shoving generations of children into less-than-100%-loving-care before they are of school age – has in my opinion resulted in Generations X and Y looking to their bosses to demonstrate leadership behaviors that are more properly characteristic of parents. Which ultimately compounds the problem.

    @katy and Mark S.: We are all on the same page about methodology. It’s hard to determine whether research is useful when the work itself is based on assumptions about categories that may not hold up (like leader vs. manager vs. supervisor – the variables that separate them should be clarified and their audiences segmented).

    @Mark H. and Mark S.: Any suggestions about how to unconfuse the goal in government and then communicate that widely despite objections? (The clearer you communicate the more reaction you get from people who clearly understand what you are saying and completely disagree…)

  • #159969

    Peter Sperry

    I think another point to keep in mind is that private sector leaders have considerbly more discretion to choose their subordinates. GE has a decades old policy of promoting 10%, firing 10% and retaining 80% every year. Steve Jobs commonly talked about only surrounding himself with A level employees. The harvard Business Review overflows with articles about how to weed out B & C level employees to make room for A players. The private sector puts an enormous amount of upfront effort into identifying and recruiting employees who “fit” the corporate culture established by senior leaders. The private sector is also fairly ruthless about terminating those who do not fit the leaders’ vision. The public sector has almost none of these tools. Senior leaders often take over staff hired by their predecessors’ predecessor and have to sell themselves to their own subordinates if they hope to achieve ay meaningful results. Given the challanges faced by one and the tools available to the other, I would public, not private, sector leaders are the ones exceeding expectations.

  • #159967

    Paul Alberti

    Communication is an interesting topic. I tell my now early 20 year old kids that communication is a two way street – just because I tell you something does not mean I have communicated with you. Not to get theoretical here – but what feedback loop do managers have to confirm the message has been received and understood by all listeners? I am communicating to 2 – 3 generations, various economic/gender/geographical staff – the joys of diversity. A single message crafted in one format does not fit all members of the organization.
    How much money do we spend annually on just communication classes? And we are still having discussions on why senior managers are not liked and first level managers are liked just a little better. So now we have to figure out – are managers communicating or have staff stopped listening? If I have a brilliant comms plan, but my team/staff/agency are not listening – I am still not communicating.
    When you went to your last All Hands meeting – were you excited to go or was it an hour or two away from something you would rather be doing? Did senior managers tell you anything of interest or importance or was it the usual you are all great, love working with you, we are doing great things, keep up the good work? What did you want to hear but didn’t at the All Hands? Or were you in listening mode – hearing what they said – or were you busy thinking of the soccer practice that night, or what to have for dinner, or if they go the full 2 hours, I’ll be 30 minutes late leaving which means an extra hour on my commute home?
    What a tough skill communications is – one has to send the message and the other has to actually receive it which means both parties need to be in the moment and aware of what is happening now. And both parties have to double check the message to make sure they understood.

    So maybe it isn’t just senior managers at all -maybe it is all of us – we have to listen and ask questions and managers have to talk and answer the questions and now we have dialogue and on our way to real communications. Sounds too easy doesn’t it.

  • #159965

    This is certainly true. The other point of private sector is that every level of management is hired to meet the corporate culture. Some corporations have cultures that seem to encourage back stabbing, tattling, and bad behaviors and there are people who can exist in that type of place. Others nurture each and every employee, make everyone feel important and necessary to achieving the company mission, encourage speaking out because it promotes communication and innovation.

    I think you are correct about managers not getting to pick their employees and they may not be A players. I see too many possible A players being squelched by supervisors and managers (who should all be leaders, but are not) who would never have made that level in private sector. They are not A players.

    My other BIG issue with public sector is that too many employees do not treat it like a business. Some agencies are money makers and some are not, but they all run on money and not enough emphasis is put on running government like it is a business. I deal with high level managers who don’t want anything to do with managing their budgets and upper management is standing behind them. They don’t want to be involved either. That would never fly in private sector.

    Things are worse where I work than they were before they started all the surveys. I will be curious to see what the results are from this years survey.

  • #159963

    Mark Sullivan

    I think @Mark H makes a good point re: goal clarity. Perhaps the solution to good leadership is in acknowledging the limitations of leadership’s authority and expertise. Complex problems most often require collaboration more than direction. By creating a space for employees to develop and negotiate the means and methods for achieving greater organizational outcomes, leadership may be better able to achieve both results and employee engagement.

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