On paper, it looks like the federal government has the right formula for performance management – an ongoing cycle of planning, monitoring, developing, rating and rewarding employee performance. Yet the country’s largest employer is beset with an older workforce that’s looking to retire and leave a wake of skills gaps behind. At the same time, agencies struggle to recruit and retain the skilled young professionals government needs to deliver on its mission in a changing world.
It’s no wonder that the President’s Management Agenda calls out a modern workforce as one of three essential components of “providing 21st-century services to Americans.” However, improving employee performance is a big initiative. It requires a culture of performance management where supervisors challenge, recognize and reward personnel all year long. In fact, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the chief human resource agency and personnel policy manager for the federal government, emphasizes “performance management is one of the most important parts of a supervisor’s or team leader’s job.”
Let’s take a look at performance management in public sector organizations – and how skilled supervisors can help employees, teams and agencies achieve their goals.
The first phase of OPM’s performance management cycle is Planning. Supervisors are tasked with setting expectations and goals for individuals and groups to be productive, achieve organizational objectives and meet their aspirations as they serve the American people. It’s a win-win vision, with employees competently contributing to the organization so all parties succeed.
Though every agency and every role has unique requirements, supervisors need to master at least these competencies for the Planning phase of performance management:
- Build Relationships. Establish effective working relationships with and among employees. In today’s government, leaders have to effectively build relationships with remote workers and workers from multiple generations. Supervisors must be role models for positive collaboration within and across teams – through in-person, digital and phone connections.
- Assess Competencies. Though most people think of the annual performance review as the time when supervisors measure employee skills, it’s just as important in the early stages of an employee’s career or job role to complete a skills and competency assessment. A baseline assessment will help the employee and supervisor map out a realistic development plan appropriate to the employee’s role and baseline skills. A competency management system that supports OPM job series is an important tool for managers to tie goals and performance to relevant skills.
- Set Goals. In alignment with organizational goals, supervisors specify tasks, desired results, standards of performance and time frames for individual and group activities.
Ongoing feedback is critical to shape and improve performance. Monitoring is more than a phase; it’s a continuous process for every day and all year long as supervisors track employee and team progress and performance. For most workers, a supervisors’ review of their work is a natural and welcomed exercise – a way for their contributions to be recognized.
It’s also important to address poor performance – something that agencies have not done well. “Seeing a coworker not perform or behave badly with no consequences can drive employee engagement down in a big way,” reminds Jeff Neal, founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com.
Supervisor competencies for monitoring employee and team performance include:
- Communicate Clearly. Performance standards and expectations must be clearly understood by all. A supervisor’s written and spoken word should clearly articulate what’s needed – and why.
- Provide Feedback. To let personnel know what they’re doing right – and what needs to be improved, feedback must be frequent, specific and timely.
- Address Marginal Performance. By addressing performance problems right away, supervisors can often facilitate the support required for improvement. It’s also a signal to all employees that the organization does not tolerate poor performance.
Employee development is a lifelong exercise, aimed at broadening and deepening skills and knowledge. Through training and other opportunities, personnel master skills, gain new ones, take on higher levels of responsibility and contribute more broadly to the organization.
OPM offers a robust array of online and classroom training and development courses for personnel at all levels. OPM is also an advocate of mentoring to pair a junior protégé with a more seasoned mentor for guidance, direction and career advice. Benefits include improved morale, increased productivity and career development.
To support employee development at all stages of their career, federal supervisors should reflect on each employee’s progress and performance and help direct their next steps. Specific supervisor competencies include the ability to:
- Coach Employees. Coaching helps to recognize an employee’s growth, map out desired and possible career paths and identify skills and experience required to achieve goals. Feedback encompasses more than commenting on current performance; it includes listening well and providing direction for individual, team and agency success.
- Facilitate Development. A supervisor can be instrumental in assigning additional responsibilities or identifying work details (within the agency or with an outside agency) that will promote employee growth and development. It’s a wise supervisor who understands that an employee who leaves the team for a new opportunity is a win for the employee and the agency – and an opportunity for the team to benefit from a new teammate who is ready for the challenge.
- Establish Learning Plans. Employee learning plans formalize some of the development goals and identify the training to support the next level of performance.
Federal government has a strict set of rules for performance reviews. For example, agencies are required to use a five-point rating system. Certainly, an annual “score” will not translate to improved employee performance or engagement. Ongoing feedback is critical to keeping employees on track. And, when it’s time for the annual review, nothing should be a surprise.
The review and rating should be one conversation of many about employee performance. Done right, a “rating” is an evaluation of employee performance against that employee’s performance plan, a summary of the performance and an annual rating.
To deliver fair and helpful performance ratings, supervisors must competently:
- Write the Review. Using a competency-based approach to performance, the rating is an opportunity for supervisors to specifically call out achievements, highlight where the employee has grown in the past year, and opportunities for the next areas of development.
- Conduct a Review Meeting. Dedicate time to meet with each employee to answer questions, recognize contributions and outline the next performance goals together.
- Seek Feedback. Supervisors get performance reviews, too. The ability to ask for – and receive – feedback from direct reports is a valuable skill that can help direct supervisors’ own career paths.
The Rewarding phase can be a stumbling block for many federal supervisors. While rewarding an employee can be as simple as a sincere and public, “thank you!,” words will not sustain prolonged performance. And, unlike the tools available to their private sector counterparts, financial “rewards” in government remain limited. Federal government pays personnel based on the “grade” of the job (determined by level of difficulty, responsibility and qualifications required) and tenure with the government.
That may change, as there’s a push by some to introduce pay-for-performance vehicles, meant to reward high performing individuals. However, until or unless that takes hold, government supervisors have very little control over salary and must look to non-financial ways to recognize and reward high-performing employees.
Supervisor competencies to support rewarding employees include:
- Praise Employee Contributions. A supervisor who sincerely, routinely and openly calls out individuals and team for achievements helps to boost morale, engagement and performance of all involved. Personnel will be drawn to a supervisor and team that’s known for expecting – and recognizing – high quality work.
- Institute Low-Cost Awards. Certificates of appreciation or accomplishment, award pins, office banners or a photo wall of fame are all creative, low-cost ways to make recognition visible to others. A supervisor who presents such tokens with enthusiasm and sincerity will help to foster a performance culture where achievements are celebrated.
- Create Engagement Opportunities. High performers want to be involved. As an individual or team builds its level of competency and achievement, look for opportunities for broader involvement in the work. Invite employees to brainstorming sessions for design or improvement. Greater involvement is its own reward, as individuals learn more, contribute more and achieve ongoing recognition from peers.
While the U.S. federal government is not known for being a high-performing organization, it has recently improved employee engagement and appears to be diligently pushing for the resources and tools to get better. Government supervisors are key players in this transition, starting with the individuals and teams they manage. To support skills-based assessments, performance plans and reviews, supervisors and employees alike will benefit from a competency management system that “understands” government and OPM job series.