MSPB examined the effectiveness of Federal first-level supervisors and how well agencies select, develop, and manage them. They concluded that although there has been some overall improvement in employee’s perceptions of their supervisors’ performance, many supervisors continue to demonstrate levels of supervisory skill substantially lower than what is needed to effectively engage employees and manage their performance.
Current selection of first-level supervisors is heavily based on technical expertise. The problems in supervisory selection reported over the past 30 years appear to persist. Supervisory selection is often based more heavily on technical expertise than on leadership competencies. Technical skills appear to be much more strongly emphasized than are supervisory skills in both job announcements and assessments.
Technical experts without an interest or aptitude in leadership are often selected for supervisory roles. Because most Federal career paths do not provide technical expert roles in which highly proficient and experienced employees are recognized with organizational status and increased compensation, technically proficient employees who have minimal interest or aptitude in managing people apply for supervisory positions. And, because the selection criteria are heavily weighted toward technical expertise, they often are selected for these positions.
The supervisory probationary period is not consistently being used as the final step in the selection process. Federal managers are not consistently using the probationary period as the final step in the selection process for first-level supervisors. Very few new supervisors were reassigned or separated for failure to complete probation. Only 64% of supervisors had been informed of the probationary period while fewer than half indicated that their performance during their probationary period had been used to decide if they should retain a supervisory role.
Supervisors need substantially more training and development. Many new supervisors are not receiving the training and development opportunities they need both to understand the agency’s expectations for supervisors and to manage their employees effectively. Less than two-thirds of supervisors said that they received training prior to or during their first year as a supervisor. Of those who received training, almost half received one week or less. Overall, most of new supervisors did not receive training in each of the basic areas of performance management, including developing performance goals and standards; assigning, reviewing, and documenting employees’ work; providing feedback; developing employees; evaluating employee performance; and managing poor performers.
Many supervisors do not receive the information they need. Only two-thirds of first-level supervisors believe they are receiving information about the goals and priorities of their organization; half said they are satisfied with the information they receive from management about what is going on in their organization. Less than two-thirds agree that their supervisor adequately explains the reasons for work changes before they take place or were satisfied with their involvement in decisions that affect their work.
Supervisors receive assistance from their managers, but many need more information and specific guidance. Although most supervisors reported that their supervisor talks with them or assists them when they need help, fewer stated that they receive all the information and guidance needed to do a good job. One reason a substantial number of supervisors say their managers do not provide the specific information or guidance they need may be that the managers themselves are not receiving enough information about the organization to provide adequate guidance and information to supervisors.
Supervisors need more coaching and feedback. Receiving frequent feedback is a vital component of effective supervisory performance. Yet just under half of supervisors are receiving feedback from their managers at least every two weeks, 13 percent receive feedback monthly, 38 percent receive feedback only quarterly or even less often, and 10 percent receive feedback once a year or less. There were wide gaps between supervisors’ perceptions of their behavior and performance and employees’ perceptions. For example, while most supervisors said they explain work changes to employees before they take place, only half of employees agreed that their supervisors do so.
Only about half reported that when they were new supervisors their manager provided them with coaching or feedback that helped them develop supervisory competencies. By not providing feedback and coaching, managers are sending a strong message to first-level supervisors that feedback and coaching are not important functions of supervision.
Supervisory and managerial accountability need to be strengthened. Stronger cultures of accountability need to be developed in many Federal agencies so that each supervisor and manager demonstrates a personal commitment to serving the public through effectively managing the performance of his or her employees. Several studies over the past 30 years have documented the need for improvement, especially in the area of managing poor performers.
Excerpted from the MSPB report, A Call to Action: Improving First-Level Supervision of Federal Employees, May 2010.
Do you agree with MSPB’s findings? Which of the findings do you think most contribute to the problems with first-level supervision in the federal government? Do you have any ideas to deal with the issues MSPB has identified?