Where High Performance Happens: In the Trenches

Public employees know what needs to be done. Managers are the key to a trusting environment that empowers workers.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam shaking hands with a factory worker.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, left, directed his staff to go on an employee listening tour to hear ideas for how to recruit and retain the best workers.
(FlickrCC/Oak Ridge National Laboratory)
Most efforts to improve the performance of the government workforce have focused somewhat narrowly on better planning, establishing agency goals, performance measures and public reporting. Those efforts have been ongoing now for more than two decades, but they have been disappointing.

Experience in the private sector, backed by strong research, confirms that the potential to raise workforce performance levels is significant, but it requires rethinking the way work is organized and managed. The old notion of efficiency studies, with minimal change in the work-management process, only scratches the surface of the potential gains.

That's the problem with top-down, mandated approaches such as the one announced in April by the White House Office of Management and Budget: agency restructuring with workforce reduction, with a goal of removing employees seen as impediments to performance. But even if it's phased in over a full presidential term, it's obviously not going to be popular. OMB Director Mick Mulvaney acknowledged that in calling for federal workers to not be upset by pending cuts, saying that removing unnecessary workers and poor performers would make it easier to recognize high-performing civil servants. It remains to be seen if employees will appreciate those opportunities or cooperate fully.

A far better approach is asking employees to identify ways to provide government services more effectively and efficiently. That was a major part of the multi-level strategy that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam adopted as an early step in transitioning the state's workforce to pay for performance. First, he directed cabinet members to do top-to-bottom reviews of their agencies. His commissioner of finance and administration also surveyed agencies, asking for ideas on how to improve performance. There were roughly 700 responses, almost half of which spoke to antiquated employment practices. Finally, the deputy to the governor and the human resources commissioner went on an employee listening tour to hear ideas for how to recruit and retain the best workers.

Tennessee's approach was notable for its rarity. For reasons that are too often entrenched in the culture, government leaders are reluctant to solicit ideas for change from employees and employees are reluctant to offer their suggestions. It's because of a lack of trust built up over decades. That's unfortunate, because employees know better than anyone where current practices impede performance. They want their organizations to be well managed, and they want their ideas to be valued. When the door is opened, they can be an invaluable resource.

Traditional civil service systems are an added barrier to improved performance. The laws and regulations were drafted at a time when work systems were largely stable, managers did all the thinking, and employees were expected to do what they told. The many hours of administrative work triggered by redefining jobs can discourage change. And there are employees who learn early on that it's to their benefit not to try new approaches.

In true high-performance organizations, the extraordinary results are achieved day after day in the trenches. The strategy rides on selecting and developing managers who create a trusting environment; empower their people to address job-related issues that affect performance; align each individual's goals to departmental goals and the organization's mission; give their workers recurring feedback and coaching; and recognize and celebrate accomplishments.

Managers have more impact on performance than any other factor. The best analogy is the role of coaches in a football game. When players come off the field, its common to see coaches and players talking; it's then that coaches provide feedback to improve play when the athletes go back on the field. Between games, the coaches and players spend time together reviewing videos to identify how play can be improved. These ongoing brief conversations are now seen as a best practice.

Particularly important is the setting of clear goals. Tennessee followed its solicitation of ideas from employees with the implementation of goal-based management across state government. The state's chief learning officer developed a portfolio of workshops for managers and non-managers and contracted for coaches to work with managers. Managers were given three years to refine their use of goal-setting. That enabled the state to transition successfully to pay for performance.

Pay for performance certainly has its critics, but it's solidly established and broadly accepted in the private sector that initiatives to improve performance are more likely to succeed when financial rewards are linked to results. Pay for performance reinforces accountability. When there are no consequences, not only is poor performance too often ignored but so is exemplary performance.

Problems with pay for performance arise in the credibility of the process, bias and discrimination by managers, and the failure by managers to define performance expectations. These problems can be avoided. That's why Tennessee invested three years in preparing for the transition.

We know a lot about what influences employee performance. Amazon.com lists more than 3,000 books on employee motivation. Everybody gains when they think their efforts are valued, but too often public leaders send a contrary message. That's where change needs to begin.

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