Help Your Team Manage Stress, Anxiety, and Burnout

Given the current environment in the federal HR world, it is increasingly difficult to manage the demands of work. In this article, Harvard Business Review provides some suggestions that can be employed by both the supervisor and the individual employee.

Help Your Team Manage Stress, Anxiety, and Burnout

What do you think? Which of these recommendations do you think would be helpful in your work environment? Which are unrealistic? What do you think your supervisor would say if you forwarded this article to him/her?



Reference Checking: Moving from Good to Better

Reference checking best practices can help agencies improve applicant assessment.

MSPB has repeatedly encouraged agencies to identify and adopt valid selection tools. The use of such tools supports merit in hiring by helping to identify the best candidates for each job opening. The MSPB report, The Federal Selection Interview: Unrealized Potential, observed that structuring employment interviews according to research-based principles improves the validity of this oft-used hiring hurdle. The MSPB report, Reference Checking in Federal Hiring: Making the Call, takes a similar approach by highlighting best practices for another frequently-used hiring tool.

The Merit Principles Survey found that 77 percent of supervisors use reference checking in their selection decisions. However, Making the Call reveals wide variation in the quality and consistency of reference checks. Unfortunately, formal measurement validity research has not yet incorporated a distinction between high-quality, structured reference checking and less formal, ad hoc discussions with an applicant’s former employers. As this distinction is recognized, the value of carefully conducted reference checks will become more apparent.

Increased standardization of reference checking and effective training in its implementation are needed to realize the full potential of this assessment tool. A survey of mostly private sector organizations found that 81 percent of those that do reference checking employ standardized questions. While this level of standardization is commendable, this data also means that one-fifth of these organizations do not have a structured questioning process. Without standardizing core reference checking questions, it becomes a more difficult and more subjective task to compare information obtained from different reference providers. The value of this information is thereby reduced.

Of greater concern is that only half of the surveyed organizations offer reference checkers training in best practices. Under conditions of low standardization and training, reference checkers are less likely to obtain useful information that contributes to effective hiring, and the potential of reference checking is then not fully realized.

In a self-fulfilling, downward spiral, this low information yield can lead to reference checking becoming a low priority. As this occurs, reference checking is even more likely to be done in a perfunctory and ineffective manner. Unfortunately, increasingly unstructured, inconsistent, and unreflective reference checks are even less likely to produce useful information. To practitioners unfamiliar with best practices, this poor result may seem intrinsic to reference checking as an assessment tool, rather than simply the result of poor implementation. This downward spiral is partially responsible for differences in reference checking practice and for some employer dissatisfaction with information obtained from reference checking.

The solution requires addressing the root problem—many reference checks are not conducted consistently or effectively. Increased standardization and training can have two important effects. First, the overall quality of information obtained from reference checking should increase. Second, hiring professionals should become more attuned to the distinction between well-designed reference checks and casual, informally conducted reference checks. This understanding can foster more useful discussion of the strengths and potential of reference checking as an assessment. ¯

Excerpted from Issues of Merit, a publication of the Office of Policy and Evaluation, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.


Understanding Job Satisfaction

Three key factors may explain why some agencies rate better than others.

Job satisfaction is fast becoming a key indicator in how agencies measure whether or not they are an “employer of choice.” The Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) report, What Do Federal Employees Say?, indicates that 68 percent of respondents to the latest Human Capital Survey were satisfied with their jobs. This was a slightly lower percentage than found for private sector employees where, on average, 71 percent were satisfied.

When the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) asked a similar question on each of its last four Merit Principles Surveys, overall job satisfaction varied only slightly—from a high of 72 percent in 1992 to a low of 67 percent in 2000. What was perhaps more noteworthy was the fact that there was considerably greater job satisfaction for employees in some agencies than in others. Given that the overall year-to-year variation in job satisfaction is small, why was there greater variation among individual agencies?

To answer this question, we analyzed the results from our Merit Principles Surveys to see if we could better understand what factors contribute to overall job satisfaction. We found three key dimensions to job satisfaction among our respondents. These are, in order of importance:

1        The match between the person and the job.

2        The extent to which employees believe they are respected for what they do.

3        The extent to which employees believe they are well managed.

By far, the most influential factor in job satisfaction appears to be the degree to which employees think their job makes good use of their skills and abilities. This was closely followed by the extent to which employees think the work they perform is meaningful. If employees believe their work and the work of their agency is important and makes good use of their skills, there is a very high likelihood they will be satisfied with their job—even if they are not as positive about other aspects of the job.

The next major component of satisfaction appears to be whether employees believe they are treated with respect. Higher job satisfaction is associated with working conditions where employees believe their opinions count and where they receive recognition for the work they perform.

The third component of job satisfaction is related to how well an organization is managed. This component does not seem to work in isolation from job fit and respect. In other words, a well-managed organization does not translate into high job satisfaction scores in the absence of a good match between employees and the job, or under conditions where employees do not feel respected for what they do.

However, poor management can undermine job satisfaction among employees who would otherwise be content with the conditions of their employment. Put another way, while good managers by themselves do not ensure that employees will be satisfied with their jobs, poor managers can easily drive away employees who are otherwise happy with the work they do.

All of this leads back to our original question—why is there noticeable variation in employee job satisfaction scores among different agencies? Our data indicate that each of the three factors discussed above play a role. Differences in agency missions, for instance, might explain differences in overall satisfaction. Agencies that have a clear and compelling mission can probably attract applicants who believe in that mission. Those individuals then have a good chance of making job decisions that allow them to follow their interests and make good use of their talents. But keep in mind, the prospects for high job satisfaction can be easily undermined by working conditions that convey either a lack of respect for the employee or poor management.¯

Reprinted from Issues of Merit, a publication of the Office of Policy and Evaluation, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.

360-Degree Feedback: For Development or Evaluation? You Make the Call

360-degree feedback is a process in which an employee’s supervisor, peers, direct reports, and sometimes customers and suppliers, provide input about the employee’s work behaviors. The most common format is a questionnaire about the employee’s demonstration of critical competencies. Feedback is summarized for the employee in the form of both numerical ratings and narrative comments. The information provided by the raters is usually anonymous except for the feedback provided by the employee’s direct supervisor.

The application of 360° feedback can be divided into two broad categories: (1) employee development and (2) employee evaluation. Employee development applications include individual development planning, coaching and career counseling. The objective is to help the employee understand both strengths and developmental needs from the varying perspectives of the raters and provide an impetus to improve personal performance. Employee evaluation applications include performance appraisal, succession planning, and selection. The objective is to assess employees’ performance for annual appraisal or to select employees for jobs or special opportunities.

Organizations need to carefully consider their goals and organizational culture, as well as legal and ethical issues, before deciding how to apply 360° feedback. The considerations summarized below are based on recognized 360° research in organizations.

Employee Development Applications

• Raters are assured of anonymity. No records are kept of individual ratings. When raters believe they are anonymous, they provide more accurate ratings.

• Raters provide more candid feedback than for evaluation-type applications.

• Raters distinguish between different behaviors of the target employee, allowing the employee to better identify areas for development.

• Employees focus on the overall developmental value of the feedback rather than on numerical ratings.

• Participants are more comfortable with the process, more satisfied with it, and more trusting of their coworkers than when 360s are used for evaluation.

Employee Evaluation Applications

• When a 360 instrument is intended for performance appraisal or selection, the organization must be able to prove that the ratings are a valid and reliable indicator of the employee’s performance, i.e., that high 360 ratings correlate with demonstrated high performance and low 360 ratings correlate with demonstrated low performance.

• If 360 ratings are used to make personnel decisions, specific raters and their ratings must be identifiable in the event of an investigation or law suit.

• Raters for 360 evaluation applications tend to distinguish less among specific behaviors, using an overall impression to color responses.

• Research shows that raters tend to inflate their ratings for evaluation-type applications.

• Disgruntled raters may negatively distort ratings to “get back” at someone for real or imagined slights.

• Conscious or unconscious discrimination may occur based on personal prejudices of gender, race, or other personal characteristics not related to performance.

• Employees often focus more on which rater might have said what and on the numerical ratings rather than on the developmental value of the input.

• Evaluative applications can damage morale, teamwork and employee trust.

• If 360 feedback is used to appraise performance for supervisors and managers, they may avoid managing people appropriately due to concerns about obtaining favorable ratings from direct reports.

Development or Evaluation, But Not Both

The same 360 feedback process should not be used for both development and evaluation. The decision about how the feedback will be applied must be made when it is designed. The behaviors of raters and ratees differ with each application, and the basic premise of the ratings differs. For development, raters need to consider only the relative strengths and development needs of the individual employee. When a 360 tool is used for evaluation, raters need to differentiate among all the employees rated because decisions are made in which some employees receive “more “ of something based on the raters’ input, such as a higher appraisal rating, more pay or an opportunity. Because of these factors, organizations must be prepared to provide a strong foundation for the process before implementing 360 feedback, particularly when used as part of the formal evaluation process. It is especially critical that organizations clearly identify what they are trying to achieve. ¯

Reprinted from Issues of Merit, a publication of the Office of Policy and Evaluation, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.

Generations Apart: Or Are We?

Differences in generational expectations are not so distinct as some may think.

The issue of generational differences is getting more and more attention these days from the popular press. Researchers claim that there are significant differences between younger and older employees in what motivates them, the level of commitment they invest in organizations, and the expectations they have for their employers. Many researchers have proposed that differences between these groups require that supervisors use separate management strategies for each. Given that supervisors already have quite a bit on their plates, we decided to test this theory to see how it plays out in the Federal workforce.

Using Merit Principles Survey data, we compared responses across generations to see if any significant differences were present. We simplified the analysis by grouping Yers with Xers (together, born after 1960) and Traditionalists with Boomers (born 1960 and before) because the population of each of the former groups was too small to draw significant conclusions. Here, we compare our survey findings against some of the widely held beliefs about the differences between these generations.

Belief: Money motivates younger generations while civic duty motivates older generations.

Finding: When asked to identify the three factors that motivate them most to do a good job, both groups cited the same top two factors: 1) the desire to make a contribution, and 2) personal pride or satisfaction in their work. Increased chances of promotion (which may, for some, translate into money) came in third for the younger group and civic duty was the third most important factor for older employees.

Belief: Younger generations, as opposed to older generations, will not stay with the Federal Government for their entire career.

Finding: We found it is true that younger Federal employees expect to leave Government before they are eligible to retire—almost three times as many Generation X and Y employees as Boomers and Traditionalists. However, only about one-third of the X/Yers say this is likely, which is a smaller number than many researchers would have expected.

Belief: Younger generations want different things in terms of their job and benefits.

Finding: Our survey results indicate that younger and older generations have much more in common in terms of why they stay or leave the Government. The two groups identified the same top three reasons they would retire from or quit their job—a desire to make better use of their skills, increase advancement opportunities, and earn more money.

The two groups also agreed that Federal benefit programs are the most important reason for staying in their jobs. Job security and pay were the next most important to Generation X and Y. Pay and current job duties were the next most important to Traditionalists and Boomers. On the other hand, workplace and family-friendly flexibilities appear more important to Generations X and Y than they are to Traditionalists and Boomers. In particular, Generation X and Y rated child care referral and onsite child care, telecommuting, part-time work, and elder care referrals as more important than the other age group did.

These findings indicate that different generations of civil servants are similarly interested in serving the public and making a difference. At the same time, they also want a work environment that provides advancement opportunities, good benefits, and job security. Although there are some variations between the groups, these might be better explained by circumstance rather than fundamental differences. A younger employee with a new baby would likely value child care benefits more than an employee with school-aged children. Or an employee with 25 years left in her career is more likely to anticipate leaving an employer than an employee who already has 25 years of service.

These findings lead us to caution agencies about getting caught up in the management flavor of the month. Good management practices for one generation might also mean good management practices for another. ¯

Reprinted from Issues of Merit, a publication of the Office of Policy and Evaluation, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.

Transforming the Organizational Culture to Focus on Performance

The personality of an organization can be changed through its pay system.

Each organization has its own unique personality and way of doing things. These shared norms are commonly known as the organization’s “culture.” Cultures tend to be remarkably enduring and serve to provide employees with guidance about what to expect when they come to work each day—for example, how communication flows through the organization or whether they should view their peers as collaborators or competitors. This guidance can also serve to promote the achievement of individual and organizational goals by identifying what types of behaviors are desired and how they will be rewarded.

In an ideal situation, employees join organizations with cultures well-suited to their values and needs. If their employer is not a perfect match, employees may be able to adapt to fit the culture. In contrast, changing organizational culture generally requires substantial time and effort due to the long-entrenched norms, behaviors, and traditions that must be changed to overcome organizational inertia.

Nevertheless, organizations can and do change their culture, particularly in response to external pressures from competitors or customers to improve efficiency or service quality. They may also need to drive cultural change following mergers or executive succession. Although these influences on culture have been studied primarily in the private sector, most of them are also relevant to the public sector. In particular, the Federal Government has faced increasing pressure in recent years to provide better services at lower costs, while experiencing unprecedented reorganizations and accompanying changes in leadership—all in the hopes of becoming more results-focused.

At the same time, agencies are increasingly being given the flexibilities to develop new employee compensation systems. These new systems can serve as powerful tools to align organizational culture with the focus on results. In particular, a pay for performance compensation strategy ties salary dollars directly to the achievement of organizational goals, rather than to the traditional basis of pay increases—years of satisfactory performance. As a result, pay for performance “raises the bar” by shifting the emphasis from “getting by” to distinguishing oneself as a top performer. Further, by aligning individual performance objectives with organizational goals, the agency coordinates the efforts of the workforce to accomplish mission-driven results.

However, these changes don’t occur overnight. Agencies must be prepared to invest substantial time, money, and effort into creating an organizational culture consistent with pay for performance. Agency leaders should demonstrate their commitment to a performance-based pay system and ensure that employees understand why it is necessary. Supervisors must be willing and able to distinguish between employees’ performance levels, reward them accordingly, and be held accountable if they don’t. Employees need to be involved in the development of the system to facilitate buy-in and after implementation as part of the on-going process of communicating with supervisors about performance goals and progress towards achieving them. In this manner, pay for performance can serve to align employee efforts with organizational goals, resulting in a culture that emphasizes performance. ¯

Reprinted from Issues of Merit, a publication of the Office of Policy and Evaluation, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.

Federal Supervisors: Technically Competent but Managerially Challenged?

25 years of survey trends indicate that employees are still critical of supervisors’ management skills.

Federal supervisors serve a critical role because they are responsible for facilitating the accomplishment of the Federal Government’s missions through the efforts of their employees. Results from 25 years of MSPB’s Merit Principles Survey suggest that the majority of Federal employees are satisfied with their supervisors and respect their technical qualifications. However, they also perceive substantial room for improvement in supervisors’ managerial skills. While employee perceptions are just one indicator of supervisory quality, these perceptions suggest that agencies should continue evaluating whether they are holding supervisors accountable for exercising effective management skills.

One area that employees identified as presenting substantial managerial challenges is performance management. Supervisors are commonly viewed as not dealing effectively with poor performers—only 30 percent of 2005 and 22 percent of 2000 survey respondents gave their supervisors favorable marks on this item. When poor performers aren’t held accountable, it is more difficult for the team to achieve its goals and can have a negative impact on other employees who have to shoulder the extra burden.

Similarly, in 2007, only 49 percent of employees reported that rewards and recognition are based on performance. Although this represented a substantial increase over the first time the question was asked in 1983 (17 percent favorable), the fact that only half of employees saw a link between performance and outcomes could mean that awards provided by supervisors have limited motivational value.

Building trust between employees and their supervisors is another area that appears to need work. This becomes readily apparent in questions regarding employees’ trust of their supervisors in fairly and effectively exercising various personnel authorities (e.g., rating applicants, making selections, setting pay, and taking adverse actions), as seen in Figure 2. Ratings in each of these areas improved slightly compared to 1996, although fewer than 40 percent of employees expressed faith in their supervisors in any of these areas.

As these results show, there has been some progress in employees’ perceptions of supervisors’ managerial ability, yet this improvement has been modest. Given that supervisors accomplish their mission through their employees, it is essential that agencies select, develop, reward, and retain their supervisors based on the supervisor’s ability to effectively manage. Unless employees perceive that they are being managed well, it is highly unlikely that they will perform at their best. Additional longitudinal trends are summarized in the recent MSPB report, The Federal Government: A Model Employer or a Work In Progress?

Reprinted from Issues of Merit, a publication of the Office of Policy and Evaluation, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.

Supervision 101: Coaching Your Employees

Coaching is an important part of every supervisor’s job. Just as a skilled coach is vital to the success of a sports team, an effective coach is essential for a high performing work team.

What Is Coaching? Coaching is guiding employees to enhanced job performance by analyzing what can be changed and helping them learn how to make those changes. Not everyone can be a superstar, but everyone can learn to perform to their maximum potential.

What is the difference between feedback and coaching? Feedback is providing information on past behavior while coaching is helping an employee alter future behavior. However, feedback is an integral component of coaching because it is important for employees to understand what has worked or not worked in the past before they can change their future behavior. The basketball coach recalls a player’s triumphs or errors as the starting point for a discussion of what the player can do in the next game to score more points. The supervisor can also use examples of an employee’s past effective and ineffective behaviors to highlight the changes needed to maximize performance.

A good coach builds a bridge from current to improved performance by objectively identifying how employees can improve, providing candid feedback and assisting employees in planning how they can enhance their performance. Focusing on improvements and paying attention to the critical details makes the difference between winning and ho-hum performance.

When Should You Coach? Coaching is an ongoing partnership between supervisors and employees with the employee’s continual growth as the shared objective. Employees who have not yet developed the competence for the job may blossom into solid performers; solid performers may become master performers; and master performers may move to the next level of expertise.

Some situations are especially appropriate for coaching, including helping employees transfer new knowledge and skills learned in training to the workplace, preparing employees for a new or especially challenging assignment, equipping employees for career advancement, and leading employees from an upsetting failure or shortfall to being well prepared for the next opportunity.

How Do I Coach? Effective coaching begins with careful thought. If you formulate answers to the following questions before meeting with an employee, you should be well prepared.

• What is your analysis of the situation? What are the employee’s strengths and weaknesses? In what areas can the employee improve or change?

• What is the goal for the coaching session?

• What specific examples of past behavior (successes as well as failures) can you provide?

• Are there any obstacles to improved performance— what are they and what can be done about them?

During the coaching session, encourage the employee to share his or her perspective and ideas. This is a dialogue, not a monologue. Collaborate with the employee to develop a plan for moving forward and follow through on the plan over time.

Also, be tactful but be candid and specific about the behaviors that need to be changed and the expected impact of the changes. Remember, good coaches care about their people but they do not try to win popularity contests. They tell their team members what they need to hear even if a team member does not want to hear it.

Coaching employees means helping them maximize their potential through effective use of their talents, developing new skills and knowledge, and overcoming challenges to their performance. These steps will not only help the employee improve his or her individual performance, but they may also lead to greater morale, teamwork and productivity within the organization. ¯

Reprinted from Issues of Merit, a publication of the Office of Policy and Evaluation, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.


10-Minute Training Evaluation for Busy Supervisors

You are a harried supervisor with papers piled high on your desk. Along with managing and rewarding your team—and helping with their technical work—you try to get them the training they need. Evaluating that training is part of your job too, but you find this frustrating. Any evaluation done at the end of training is only rarely passed on to you. Even then, it does not consider whether the training had any effect in the workplace.

Good news—there’s something you can do. Use 10- minute training evaluation with each team member to get the job done. Here’s how it works:

The first five minutes. Have a chat about the training soon after your team member returns. Ask these four questions:

1. What did you think of the training? This gives your team members an unprompted opportunity to evaluate their experience. Listen carefully to understand what was good and not-so-good.

2. How much could you get from just the manual? Sometimes the essentials of training—especially technical training—don’t require class attendance. Knowing this can save resources in the future.

3. How much did you already know? Some training addresses mostly basic or introductory information that those on the job already know.

4. What will you do differently on the job? Your team member has the newly-learned information in mind and is in a good position to predict how it can be used. Jot some notes from this conversation on the top half of a sheet of paper or a generated form. Your notes from the fourth question will help you decide when to plan your second five minutes.

The second five minutes. Have another chat after your team member has had the time and opportunity to put the training to use. Ask these two questions:

1. How did you use what you learned? Listen carefully to learn about barriers that prevented use of the training and for any misinformation or mismatch with your work setting.

2. Would you go again or do something else? Your team member is in a good position to see how well the training supports the job and perhaps suggest a better alternative.

Take more notes on the bottom half of your paper. Use your judgment about the team’s work habits and environment to add your own perspective as to whether this training would be useful for other team members. As you talk to others about these training episodes, be sure to refer to these notes and emphasize the perspective of your other team members. A folder of these notes will help when your agency “rolls up” data to meet its yearly training evaluation responsibilities under the recent revision of 5 CFR 410. This training evaluation can help the voice from a single training instance to be heard—and make a difference.

Reprinted from Issues of Merit, a publication of the Office of Policy and Evaluation, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.


Building Trust Between Classifiers and Managers

In today’s federal government, it is vital for HR staff of every speciality and at every level to recognize that, in an environment of diminishing HR budgets and growing delegations of HR functions to managers and supervisors, it is essential to build relationships and prove to line managers and first-line supervisors the importance of  the knowledge and skills the HR practitioner brings to the table.

In his article below, Steve Oppermann discusses what HR staff have to gain from developing and maintaining relationships of trust with managers and supervisors.

In addition to the ideas presented in Mr. Oppermann’s article, think through other ways that you, the HR practitioner, can help those who need what you have to offer to recognize the value of your skills.