Brilliant Worker: Terrible Boss

Friday - 7/23/2010, 4:00am EDT

Like sergeants in the Army, first-line supervisors in most organizations, including and maybe especially in the U.S. Government, make things happen. They are the go-to people.

The president, Congress or an agency head can say "jump", but it is up to supervisors and managers to determine how high and for how long.

As taxpayers and workers, most of us hope that most places in the government, like the IRS, Social Security, Defense, Homeland Security, Interior and Justice Departments have first-class managers.

So how's that working out?

A new report by the Merit Systems Protection Board says things are okay. Up to a point. Could be better. It concludes that when it comes to growing and grooming supervisors, Uncle Sam is doing a very good job except in the following areas:

  • Selecting supervisors.

  • Evaluating their performance.

  • Providing them adequate training.

  • Giving them understandable goals, and feedback on how well (or not) they are doing.

    Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

In 1969 Dr. Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull published a book called The Peter Principle. It said that in virtually every organization almost every employee "tends to rise to his level of incompetence" and "there they remain being unable to earn further promotions." Somebody at the MSPB must have read it.

The sad thing about the detailed, book-length MSPB report is that it is probably right. As in look around you.

In baseball many of the best managers never made it to the major leagues. In journalism some of the worst editors are outstanding, go-for-the-juggler reporters who got promoted to jobs that demand very different people skills. The best surgeon in the hospital may be the worst administrator.

The MSPB study, titled A Call to Action: Improving First-Level Supervision of Federal Employees, said that "technical experts without an interest or aptitude in leadership are often selected for supervisory roles" that they can't handle. Many employees at NASA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Agriculture and Defense can attest to that.

(According to the study there were 18,269 new federal supervisors appointed or promoted in fiscal year 1999 but that had jumped to 31,541 by FY 2009.)

In addition to promoting good people above their level of competence, the MSPB said agencies need to do a better job of providing more training and development, giving supervisors the "big picture" information, developing "stronger cultures of accountability....so that each supervisor and manager demonstrates a personal commitment to serving the public" through effective management. The MSPB study said agencies need to pay more attention to the probationary period to develop, improve or weed out newly-minted bosses who aren't working out.

The MSPB report is not fun, escapist beach reading. But if you are boss, wanna-be supervisor or suffering subordinate it is good, detailed and important. To read it for yourself, click here.

To reach me: mcausey@federalnewsradio.com


Jackalope is not amused. (BLM photo)

Nearly Useless Factoid
by Suzanne Kubota

Sunday, according to The Old Farmer's Almanac, is the Full Buck Moon, so named because bucks "begin to grow new antlers at this time."


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