Why Government Employees Should Assess Their Bosses

Giving public workers input into their managers' performance appraisals would be a big step toward the goal of employee engagement.
by | December 30, 2013

Results Washington is a reform plan that reflects Gov. Jay Inslee's imperative to make the state's government more efficient, effective and transparent. One of its goals is to make state agencies places where everybody wants to work. But some of the methods implemented to achieve this workplace nirvana, such as compelling supervisors to review employees' self-assessments of workplace engagement, are upside-down.

As anyone who has undergone such a review knows, this process is hardly transparent and is fraught with dissimulation. Most employees, reluctant to jeopardize their standing, will understandably be reticent during a review which perpetuates the status quo by empowering supervisors and imperiling subordinates.

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Instead of using limited resources to duplicate existing employee-development efforts, agencies should focus on improving performance-evaluation systems that directly impact advancement, compensation and development. And as part of that focus, governments should turn things rightside-up by letting employees have input into their managers' performance appraisals. After all, managers ultimately are only as good as employees say they are, so what better indicator of their performance than input from engaged subordinates?

Many surveys indicate that employees with a platform to voice their opinions feel empowered. Governing magazine, for example, conducted a survey of senior state and local officials last summer assessing the state of the public-sector workforce. One of the overarching conclusions: "Providing employees platforms to voice opinions and participate in decision-making are crucial to workforce engagement." Indeed, previous Washington State employee-satisfaction survey data indicate a strong desire for management accountability.

It's not hard to see why. I know several state employees whose careers were cut short because of manager oppression. Alas, too often the managers' bosses also are oblivious, with their own calendars too full to accommodate grievances and their schedules too busy to proactively promote an employee-friendly climate. The average age of state-government workers is higher than that the private sector, and managers are generally long-tenured. They have carved out their little fiefdoms, feel secure and tend to be resistant to constructive criticism.

So, who best to determine whether managers are contributing to a climate that fosters workplace engagement? Employees, that's who. After all, managers spend a great deal of their time interacting with subordinates; no one knows better than those subordinates how effective a manager is at leading, coaching, communicating and stimulating employee engagement.

Performance appraisals with upward feedback would be more consequential in evoking employee engagement than some supercilious "workplace engagement" questionnaire, destined for the CYA file, that asks super-silly things like "do you have a best friend at work?" (Most dogs aren't even allowed in government facilities.) Upward measurement of management performance will require more engagement from executive leadership, but it's a worthy investment with great rewards: Measuring management performance will help rein in abusive managers simply because once something is measured it generally improves.

There's research to back up that assertion. A University of North Carolina study, for example, found that managers who received performance feedback significantly improved in their supervisory behaviors compared to managers who did not. That and other similar research are mostly likely why organizations like NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, IBM, Honda and Chrysler have implemented some variation of upward assessment.

It's no secret that, in general, there is a leadership gap between the private and government sectors. Governments that aspire to private-sector competence would do well to follow the lead of the best private-sector employers in holding managers accountable. Not only will abusive managers who quell innovation will be ferreted out, but conscientious supervisors who stimulate employee engagement will appreciate the opportunity to grow. And government will be closer to achieving that state of workplace nirvana that Gov. Inslee envisions.

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Noel S. Williams

Noel S. Williams is an information-technology specialist for a Washington State agency.

ABOUT VOICES

VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

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