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.


  1. I have a bit of an adverse view of the comments. I think those in the organization lead from below as well as follow from above. I think good leaders listen more than they espouse. I think skill at accountability is a key skill of successful leaders. Based on the article quotes, here’s my thought. I hope they are useful.

    “the vision for the agency and any department can change frequently as well.”

    Just because there are new people higher up doesn’t change the organization at its core. There is such a thing as inertia in organizations that tries to return to the status quo (good or bad). The pendulum may swing but the forces are toward the middle. The collective force and vision of the people in the organization is probably the stronger force than the current alleged vision. In fact, I would posit that the vision is that which has evolved over time and the top down idea of vision is severely limited unless the “new” leaders take the existing corporate culture into account. Change in bureaucracy happens SLOWLY no matter how it feels. The wise leader takes account of the accumulated knowledge.

    “Leaders must err on the side of over-communicating a sense of vision…”

    The leader has to start by listening then developing a clear idea of the vision that the followers will accept and embrace. It is definitely not a straightforward process. Listening with sensitivity and strategic vision is the real key to change.

    “don’t skip performance feedback that is linked to reality and results.”

    The alternative is, in fact, just Bad Leadership. If you accept that someone else actually leads the organization, then you are just taking the higher pay to maintain the status quo. I have my doubts about such an approach.

    “Accountability to results as private sector organizations do.”

    I have this nagging feeling that the “private sector”, especially at the upper middle and upper levels is not altogether that much different than the public bureaucracy. I think we don’t hear about the mediocrity, but I suspect it is there.

    Performance management evolves in the day-to-day interactions of the supervisors, managers, and leaders with the staff. It is as much a social and interactive process as it is a legislated process. Within any “box” defined by laws, policies and procedures there is discretion. It is the guidance of others, in their use of discretion (their inherent discretion), that leadership comes to fruition.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Gerry. The challenge with short blog posts is just that: they are too short to fully encapsulate all the complexities of their subject-matter. You have added good points to create more depth for what was an attempt to provide highlights of thoughts and start a conversation.

    I work with many leaders in various levels of government and unfortunately the themes are recurring.

    I'd like to just add to your last point, about the difference between public and private sector accountability. I will be the first to tell you that I get asked to help leaders work to increase accountability in private sector organizations as well - they are not immune to the lack thereof.

    What I see as a major difference, however, is the flexibility and empowerment to act to change poor performance. Again, just from my personal observation and those shared by leaders I work with in the public sector, there are many more hurdles to jump if you want to manage poor performance and demand accountability in government than there are in private sector organizations. It is not easy for anyone and there are leaders who evade their responsibilites to have those 'tough conversations' or take action to manage performance when it's uncomfortable on both sides.

    Unfortunately, I have found that private organizations are simply less willing to harbor poor performance and more agile to move into a performance correction mode when faced with employees who are unwilling to 'shape up' than are public sector organizations. Private organizations seem more ready and able to 'ship out' when correction doesn't work.

  3. Halelly -
    Great post! Nice job describing some of the unique performance management issues that are inherent in the public sector. More important, you’ve offer real solutions.

  4. Thanks, Dan. Your input is valuable and I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment!