They picked who? How to select the right people to be supervisors

Thursday - 8/28/2014, 5:37am EDT

Commentary by Jeff Neal
Founder of ChiefHRO.com
& Senior Vice President, ICF International

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal's blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.

Supervisors drive much of employee perceptions of agencies. They make or recommend training approvals, selections, leave approval and more.

I have heard many people say (and I agree) that people go to work for organizations, but they leave a supervisor. We know great supervisors can make even the most trying agency a better place to work, while lousy supervisors can make even the best organization a horrible workplace.

With that perception being so widespread, most people would conclude supervisory selection processes are carefully designed, intended to select the best leaders and receive a tremendous amount of attention from senior leaders and agency heads. And most people would be wrong.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Neal

In fact, the recruiting and selection process most agencies use for supervisors is no different from what they use for other jobs. It is typically a questionnaire that is mostly copied from other similar jobs they have filled. The questions are, at best, the result of a basic job analysis that is not particularly rigorous. Most focus less on the supervisory aspects of the job than the technical aspects.

There are currently more than 1,800 supervisory jobs advertised on OPM's USAjobs.gov. I sampled dozens of the current listings and found only a few that focused intensely on supervisory/leadership skills. For most, the majority of questions are purely technical.

For a basket weaver supervisor, the questions are intended first and foremost to determine how adept the applicant is at basket weaving. The so-called "soft skills" of leadership are covered in a few questions that clearly do not drive who is on the final referral list. The problem is compounded by the quality of the leadership-related questions that agencies are using.

Here is a sample of the type of questions we see far too often:

Do you provide leadership in setting the workforce`s expected performance levels commensurate with organizational strategic objectives?

  • I have not had education, training or experience in performing this task.

  • I have had education or training in performing this task, but have not yet performed it on the job.

  • I have performed this task on the job, but with close review and assistance from either a supervisor or a senior employee.

  • I have performed this task as a regular part of a job and only in unique or unusual situations did I require assistance or review by a supervisor or a senior employee.

  • Others regularly consult me for my expertise and assistance in performing this task, or I have trained or instructed others so that they can perform this task.

What is wrong with this question? It is vague, focuses on activity rather than results, and does not address at all how well the applicant might have done the work. The first four answers address education and the level of supervision under which the work is performed. The last answer finally gets to expertise, but only as the applicant believes other people perceive him/her.

Most of us have worked with people who believe they are exceptionally good when they are actually just average on a good day. Which answer do we think that type of applicant will select?

Here is another example:

Select all of the statements from below that best describe your supervisory responsibilities and experience:

  • I have assigned work to subordinates based on priorities and skill levels.

  • I have established measurable performance goals for subordinates.

  • I have evaluated work performance of subordinates and have counseled them.

  • I have initiated formal performance improvement plans.

  • I have made final selection decisions for permanent positions.

  • I have realigned staff assignments to accommodate work or workload changes.

  • I have heard and have resolved complaints and grievances from employees and groups of employees. I have effected minor disciplinary measures and proposed major disciplinary actions.

  • I have initiated awards and have approved training requests for subordinate employees including budgetary requirements.

  • I have limited supervisory experience.

  • None of the above.

This question lists tasks, but does not address frequency of performing them, recency of the experience or how well they were done.

The question was one of 13 total questions and one of four that addressed supervisory skills. That means the majority of the score is most likely coming from the technical questions, and the part that is based upon supervisory skills does nothing to address how well the applicant performed.

The technical skills focus is the single largest problem in the hiring and promotion process for supervisory jobs. That flawed screening process is not typically followed by any kind of formal assessment to ensure the best candidate is selected. With so much focus on technical skills, the agency identifies the person who has the best technical skills and misses the candidates who might have great leadership skills but be only average in technical ability.

Supervisors are not required to be the technical expert — they are required to be the best supervisor. Those are completely different skill sets, but agencies select people based on the technical skill set and place them in jobs that require an almost completely different skill set.

When people are selected for a job (supervisor) based upon their ability to do a very different job (individual contributor), there is a lack of connection between the new role, the competencies it requires for success and the screening process that is so obvious that it should be high on the list of hiring processes that will be fixed.

My review of job announcements and discussions with human resources professionals and agency managers found that the problem is generally acknowledged to be real and in need of a fix, but few resources are being devoted to the fix. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Inertia. In physics, inertia is a property of matter by which it remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force. Organizations experience inertia as well. Human resources professionals know they have problems with this issue, but their agencies are also facing many other problems. They have to decide which problems will get their limited amount of time and money. In most agencies, there is no force to counter the inertia because this problem has not caused enough obvious pain to get attention and using existing processes is easier than making dramatic changes.

  • Safety in numbers. The supervisor selection problem is common, but the commonality may make it less likely that it will be addressed soon. Pervasive problems such as this can be lumped into the "it has always been like this and always will" bucket. There is a degree of safety in doing what almost everyone else is doing, even if it is wrong.

  • Underestimating the effects of the problem. When we have an issue that so many people agree is a problem, the fact that it has not risen to the top of the to-do list is evidence that agencies believe there are other more serious problems that need attention.

Seeing the true effects of the supervisor selection problem is essential to overcome inertia and safety in numbers. When agencies fully understand what happens as a result of the flawed selection process, they should devote the necessary resources to fix it. So what are those effects?

  • We break the high performers. Highly talented people get selected for the wrong jobs, then are blamed by their agencies for their lack of supervisory skills. It is critical to remember that many bad supervisors are great employees. They were put in the wrong job and not given the training necessary to develop their skills. That leads to unhappy supervisors, unhappy employees and unhappy bosses.

  • Employee morale and productivity tank. Employee surveys such as the OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) focus mostly on issues that are within the control of supervisors. In FEVS, 65 of 84 2013 FEVS Questions cover subjects supervisors and managers can directly or indirectly influence. By selecting the wrong people for supervisory jobs, agencies are pushing employee morale off a cliff. That leads to turnover, higher cost, lower productivity, performance deficiencies and more.

One solution to this problem is to have thorough leader development programs that help strong technical folks become better leaders. I have written about that subject before and still believe such programs are essential for any agency.

But there is another solution that also needs to happen. Agencies need to fix the supervisory selection process. The good news is that everything that needs to be done is within the control of agencies.

Here are the key characteristics of a better process:

  • Thorough job analysis. The relatively simple job analyses agencies conduct are intended to serve as a type of validation necessary to satisfy the requirements of the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures. In fact, many job analyses are just copies of others used for similar jobs. That is part of the problem. We have a flawed process. We have people replicating previous work in the interest of expediency. So we get replication of flawed processes and continuation of the problem. At the very least, agencies should conduct a new job analysis for any supervisory position where the existing analysis is focused on technical rather than supervisory skills.

  • Competency modeling. Rather than doing a simple job analysis, agencies should consider developing more robust competency models for all supervisory positions. Such models will have more scientific rigor and are more likely to be developed by Industrial/Organizational Psychologists than by HR Specialists. Good models provide a foundation upon which agencies can build a selection process that is more likely to produce good leaders rather than good technical specialists.

  • Competency-based assessments. Building upon the foundation of the competency models, agencies should develop assessment methods that allow them to more accurately measure the likelihood a given candidate will perform well in a leadership role.

  • Improved interview processes. One aspect of assessing candidates for leadership roles should be a structured interview. Traditional interviews have proved repeatedly to have little ability to predict performance on the job. Throwing darts at a dart board is only slightly less valid. Structured interviews are more objective and typically eliminate the type of informal questions many interviewers love to ask. If such interviews are going to be conducted by more than one person, a series of individual interviews can be more effective than convening a rating panel. Such panels often fall victim to a dominating interviewer who drives everyone's perception of the candidate. A small number of one-on-one interviews can eliminate that problem and truly obtain perspectives of multiple interviewers.

  • Leader development. Once more qualified candidates get through the process, selectees should have much better skills for their new supervisory roles. That does not mean they are perfect. New supervisors' skills should be compared with the competencies for the position and a training plan put in place (and followed) to close any gaps that might exist.

All of these process fixes can be implemented quickly and without spending hundreds of millions of dollars. They would significantly improve the likelihood of the best leaders being selected for supervisory jobs. That in turn should allow agencies to improve morale, productivity and overall performance. The cost is so low and the benefit so great that there is no reason not to get started now.

MORE COMMENTARY FROM JEFF NEAL:

Anything worth buying once is worth buying 10 times?

Everything old is new again

SES reform: Accountability or politics

Putting a contract out on good ideas


"Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency."