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Managers Are the Key to High Performance

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Howard Risher
October 14, 2016

Performance can be tracked and studied at three levels:  the organization level, the unit or team level, and of course the individual level. Leaders as well as laws – at the federal level it’s the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) — commonly focus on high level, organization results but fail to recognize that everything accomplished by service organizations is attributable to employees, their capabilities and their efforts. That’s true in all service organizations – businesses, universities and hospitals as well as government agencies.

key-1020000_640Research shows managers and their effectiveness in energizing and empowering their people have more impact on performance than any other factor. That’s been confirmed in research by Wharton’s Ethan Mollick. His research was mentioned in a PA Times column earlier this year, “The Importance of Executive and Middle Managers.”

That reality is observable in sports where losing coaches are fired and winning coaches command exorbitant salaries. In pro and college sports, the teams are composed of well-qualified players but a few teams perform consistently better than others. The better coaches are often acknowledged for their winning records. They develop solid game plans, provide feedback as players come off the field, and modify the game plan in response to play-by-play developments. That’s effective management.

When Congress created the Senior Executive Service (SES) in 1978, it was based on the then prevalent view that executives are the key to success – and implicitly relegated middle managers to secondary roles. In contrast, companies emphasize the “management team” – executives and managers – with incentives that reward them as a group for company success.

Government’s narrow focus on executives is reflected in the literature on New Public Management. There are many articles where the words “manager,” “employee” or “workforce” are not mentioned.

Early in 1993, the same year GPRA was enacted, President Clinton created the National Performance Review (NPR) supposedly to reform government. The plan included “empowering employees to get results,” “managers who innovate and motivate, and workers who are free to improvise and make decisions,” and “reinventing human resource management throughout the federal government.” The intent was good but as the new systems and practices were rolled out, the plans for energizing the workforce were forgotten. That has too often been true across the public sector.

Through those years, supervisors were expected to maintain close control; employees were expected to do what they were told and stay out of trouble. Managers did the thinking. That all started to change with the explosion of attention to knowledge workers over the past two decades.

The rapid growth of technology firms prompted business leaders to rethink “talent” management. That has triggered a revolution in the way work is organized and managed. Business schools along with consulting firms have devoted considerable time assessing the changes.

Psychologists have conducted related research that is now promoted on the website, APA Center for Organizational Excellence.

Effective managers routinely raise staff performance. Their impact follows them when they change jobs. Gallup’s research shows “managers account for at least 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units.”  That is solidly correlated with a number of performance indicators relevant in every organization – e.g., absenteeism, grievances, productivity, etc.

Research has confirmed the practices that differentiate great managers:

  • They know if their team has the talent needed — the ‘right people in the right jobs.’
  • They take the lead in coaching their people and support them in their development.
  • They work with their people to define performance expectations and provide feedback and coaching.
  • They are solely responsible for assessing staff performance and recognizing an employee’s contribution.
  • They maintain open communications, keep staff informed of developments, and meet regularly to understand how they are doing.

In 2009, Google realized it had a problem and began a major study that led to redefining the role and expectations of managers. The project was covered by The New York Times, Google’s Quest for Better Bosses,” and discussed in several business journals. With feedback from employees, they defined eight “rules for managers” that describe what’s expected. Technical skills were last on the list.

Now Google uses those rules in selecting, training, managing performance and rewarding managers. The payoff in improved performance should prompt every employer to undertake a similar study.

It’s now clear the old view of the manager’s role is an impediment to better performance. Traditional practices based on seniority and/or technical skills contribute to the problem.

Great managers make everyone better. They are largely responsible for employee engagement. Highly capable employees want to work for them.

Ineffective managers increase costs. They contribute to poor morale. It’s often argued that “employees leave managers, not companies.” They can undermine everyone’s sense of commitment.

This is not an easy problem to address. Google’s approach should be considered. Defining a profile of credible “rules” or expectations sends an important message, especially if managers understand it will affect their careers. The best managers can play a valuable role as coaches. Perhaps most important, leadership needs to make a public commitment to change. It’s a key to improved performance.


Author: Howard Risher has 40 plus years of experience as a consultant to clients in every sector. He has a BA in psychology from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. from Wharton. He is the co-author with Bill Wilder of the new book, It’s Time for High Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize and the Public Sector Workforce. You can reach him at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to Managers Are the Key to High Performance

  1. Richard Clay Wilson Jr. Reply

    October 27, 2016 at 10:55 am

    Despite compelling evidence and arguments to the contrary, the public sector as a whole remains deeply resistant to the concept, much less the application, of management. Mr. Risher’s article is a refreshing and sorely needed commentary.

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