An Office of Personnel Management proposal to link layoffs to performance ratings was unexpected. If the ratings were valid, it would make sense but ratings have little credibility. Jacque Simon, speaking for the American Federation of Government Employees, was correct in saying, “There’s nothing objective about performance ratings.” Simon’s opposition is understandable; the proposal appears to be intentionally antagonistic. In the absence of badly needed changes in the way, performance is managed, the proposal is not tenable.

The proposed rule does serve to highlight what is possibly the government’s weakest talent management practice. In other sectors, policies focus on the high performers. That’s true as well in sports and entertainment. It's common in other endeavors as well. Individuals aspire to be recognized. In contrast, the government’s management philosophy makes it more important to admonish poor performers.

The Trump administration is correct in emphasizing policies intended to make agencies more results-oriented and to hold employees accountable. It’s hard to argue with the goal. However, the proposed policy would have triggered a different reaction if agencies had invested earlier in best practices and training for managing employee performance. 

The proposal has been effectively nullified by the pandemic. The reason is reflected in a 2019 memo from OPM’s then Acting Director Margaret Weichert to the heads of executive departments and agencies. The memorandum reads like a how-to booklet: “let employees know what they need to accomplish and the standards that will be used to evaluate their performance.” The message is clear: goal setting is top-down. In contrast, the lesson from high-performance workplaces is that goal setting should be a collaborative process. Then employees see their goals as fair and are invested in them.

The Pandemic Made Change Essential 

One of the few positives to come out of the pandemic is that it triggered a need for agencies to rethink the way employee performance is managed. Working miles apart changes supervisor/subordinate working relationships and prompts both to adopt new behaviors. It should be seen as an opportunity for agencies to shift to proven practices. As the pandemic comes to an end, agencies should invest in defining a work management strategy for the new normal.

Throughout history, psychometricians focused on appraisal forms and improving the validity of ratings. They failed. Now remote work arrangements, lack of trust, intermittent communication, and new technology are making everyone unsure and uncomfortable. New answers are available.

The problems are not unique to the government. Employers in every sector are searching for better answers. Articles have appeared in surprising publications like Vanity Fair (“Microsoft’s Lost Decade”). In management journals, articles discussing new approaches have appeared frequently.

It’s Not a Simple Problem

Completing performance appraisals has been time-consuming but painless for supervisors—as long as the ratings are consistent with employee expectations. It’s the old Lake Wobegon phenomenon “where all the children are above average.” The annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey confirms employees believe their personal rating is accurate—it’s others’ that are inflated! It’s a problem that can be solved.

A largely unrecognized aspect of the problem in government is that “performance” has been addressed by two distinct groups of practitioners with minimal overlap. At the highest levels, there are experts who focus on agency mission and vision statements, strategic planning and goals, evidence-based decision making, and reporting systems. There is also a separate group of experts who focus on employee performance. Each group has its own technology concerns, laws and regulations, academic researchers, and consulting firms. The future needs to integrate the best thinking of both groups.

The nation’s problems and threats are becoming more complex, requiring deeper expertise. The pandemic has given new emphasis to front line knowledge and capabilities. Employees at all levels need to see how their goals are connected to agency goals.

An essential change is redefining how employee performance is evaluated. The most common practice is relying on individual performance goals combined with job-relevant competencies. Each year employees gain from experience and benefit from training and coaching. As they grow, they need to commit to new, higher-level goals. Supervisors play a key role. Year-end appraisals need to document each employee’s strengths and weaknesses. That’s very different than rating everyone on generic performance dimensions. 

Here the past truly is prologue. The highest hurdle will be changing learned behaviors and habits. Training is essential but building commitment to a new way of managing will require leadership and the help of change management facilitators. 

Gallup’s research shows the daily interactions between managers and staff are key to employee engagement and to high performance. The company’s Q12 survey results confirm the importance of managers. However, in government, the role of managers has been virtually ignored. Redefining and emphasizing supervisory practices proven to be effective in remote work settings is now essential.

Government’s Purpose Should Be an Advantage 

A thread prominent in discussions of high performance is the importance of creating a purpose-driven organization. Organizations that emphasize service, address difficult societal problems, and/or build productive relationships with other organizations—in other words, government—should be exemplars. The purpose is the reason many employees opted for government careers. Emphasizing an agency’s purpose gives employees a sense of meaning and value; it's motivational.

Purpose-driven organizations benefit when the societal value of agency accomplishments is emphasized in recruiting, onboarding, training and in organization/team meetings. Accomplishments should be featured in internal and external communications. It has to be convincing but that should not be a problem in government organizations.

This new focus on purpose reflects what is important to Millennials and Gen Z workers entering the workforce. They look for something more than the pay and benefits. Looking back, it's consistent with statements like the Jack Kennedy inaugural line: “ask what you can do for your country”.

A practical example is an importance of serving customers. Too often government agencies are close to the bottom of lists comparing customer satisfaction measures with industry. That should be an easy problem to address. It would be straightforward to highlight stories of how federal agencies like Veterans Affairs benefited their “customers.” Hospitals, for example, communicate emotionally charged patient stories. A simple but powerful practice would be to videotape people discussing how a federal agency helped them.

Recognizing accomplishments would help to overcome that compliance culture. Internal communications highlighting how an employee or team solved difficult problems would influence others to do the same. Employees naturally want to be valued and recognized. It would benefit everyone.

Current Best Practice Thinking

If there is one overriding answer in the understanding of high performance, it’s the importance of gaining employee commitment to what needs to be accomplished. In the right work environment, employees will work hard, go home exhausted but look forward to returning the next day. They enjoy the challenge and the chance to contribute to their organization’s success. They may complain to co-workers but their job satisfaction is high. There are many situations where that’s proven to be true across government. 

The goal in managing and evaluating performance should be to support and encourage a performance culture. A fundamental change in gaining broad acceptance is emphasizing ongoing feedback and coaching by managers. Coaching skills are now essential for effective supervision. It’s a radical change from the old, do-as-your-told approach to supervision. 

A related argument gaining acceptance is that in this era of change it's natural for performance plans and goals to need adjustment as the year unfolds. It's consistent with the argument for making organizations more agile and responsive. Adjustments and accomplishments need real time documentation. 

A third trend is to solicit feedback on performance from customers, co-workers, and subordinates. The buzzword is crowdsourcing. In a collaborative environment, relevant others are in the best position to observe an individual’s strengths and weaknesses. 

Metrics, of course, play a central role but the data need to be available locally to guide front-line decision making. That’s ongoing throughout the year. Simply reporting performance data to senior management adds little value.

In combination, best-practice thinking shifts the focus from the appraisal forms to helping managers become comfortable and proficient in their new role. They need the training and organizational support to transition to a new way of managing. Tennessee made a commitment to reform and invested three years in training and coaching to prepare managers.

The final trend is eliminating those five and seven-level rating scales, along with pass/fail ratings. Organizations need to identify and recognize their best performers as well as the few unsatisfactory performers. The majority of employees—70% to 80% or more—are performing as expected. The new rating scales have only three levels. That simplifies the supervisor’s role and enhances rating validity.

A simple reward strategy is supplementing step increases with cash awards for employees rated at the highest level. That proved to be successful in the Government Accountability Office’s strategy to reward the best performers.

As an added step to confirm the ratings, managers can be required to explain and justify the high and low ratings to a committee of peers. It assures the ratings are warranted and reinforces the recognition.

Will OPM be Ready to Help?

The answer, unfortunately, is no. Early statements suggest the Biden administration will be supportive of rebuilding the workforce. That's badly needed. The last four years have taken a toll on federal employees. However, OPM’s role as the civil service police has not won friends. HR executives in the “Great Places to Work” play an integral role in sustaining high performance. Hopefully, Biden will select an OPM director with experience reinvigorating organizations. The government needs to redefine how it utilizes its greatest asset.