Wednesday, November 25, 2009

3 Common Obstacles to Performance Management in Government (and Ways to Overcome Them)

In leadership workshops I facilitate, Federal government leaders who gather to improve their supervisory and leadership skills share their ideas and experiences and often recount very similar challenges. Some of the most frequently experienced obstacles have been an unclear or unstable vision from the top of the organization, tentativeness with performance management due to fear of litigation or union action, and a general lack of emphasis on accountability and performance results as business imperatives. Here are some of my thoughts about these problems and potential solutions.

1. Unclear or unstable vision: By design, government has a unique challenge in that its top leadership changes frequently as a result of election cycles and political appointments. This changing leadership at the top can often mean that the vision for the agency and any department can change frequently as well.

When vision and goals waver, employees lack clarity about the direction of the organization and struggle to prioritize their goals and actions. It’s difficult for leaders to manage performance without a clear and unequivocal shared vision.

What to do? A leader’s communication about vision helps set the stage for success as all members of the team understand what is important and what their ultimate purpose is. Leaders must err on the side of over-communicating a sense of vision and the importance of setting goals that map to that vision, throughout the organization with transparency, frequency, and in an inspirational tone.

2. Fear of Litigation or Union Actions: We are lucky to live and work in a country where our human rights are so well protected in the workplace, but labor laws can present a double-edged sword. By being so careful not to offend any group or criteria (such as race, gender, national origin, etc.), leaders sometimes feel like they’re walking on eggshells and can be too tentative to provide meaningful, honest, corrective performance feedback.

Some of the government leaders in my workshops even describe being explicitly instructed to avoid giving performance feedback to certain individuals because those employees have used threats, complaints, and even lawsuits in the past to defend against any claims of inferior performance. Clearly, this practice of feedback avoidance and restraint takes its toll on business results, leader and team morale, and performance.

What to do? Yes, leaders must be aware of and comply with workplace laws. But they must also be committed to communicating about performance in an honest and caring way. Providing factual, objective, behavior-based feedback is the only way to begin correcting poor performance. When in doubt, consult with your Human Resources department for legal guidance, but don’t skip performance feedback that is linked to reality and results.

3. Lack of Commitment to Accountability: Broader in scope, this is a problem that pervasively plagues all levels of government. Unfortunately, it seems government bureaucracy may enable poor performance by not demanding accountability to results as private sector organizations do. I’ve heard of numerous situations where poor performers are moved sideways and upward in the organization just to get them out of a group, when they should really have been managed toward improved performance or managed out of the organization. Often, there are too many hurdles to jump in the existing bureaucracy to do so and leaders choose the easier way out.

What to do? As the saying goes, “Think globally – act locally”. Organizational and cultural change is not gained easily, but fighting for what’s right is worth the effort in the long run. Each leader represents a point of change and an opportunity to make a small-scale, localized difference. When a groundswell of local changes takes place, they form the grass-roots change that eventually sways the bigger culture. Don’t take the easy way out – you are a role model for your employees (who are future leaders of the organization) and peers. Model the way by expecting, and getting, accountability.

What have been your experiences in this arena? What other ideas do you have for improving performance in public sector organizations? I’d love to hear about it.

Halelly Azulay is President, TalentGrow and President, Metro DC ASTD chapter.