What a great idea to assess performance, not on the basis of interpersonal relationships, but on what employees actually produce! The recent piece in Atlantic, “Why managers fear the future of remote work,” highlighted issues that have already started to impact HR best practices.
Although the article was aimed at a general audience, a few sentences made me think that the author was writing for the government – “the old guard” and their “empires”. This should be a problem in all organizations, but especially in those where people at higher levels tend to have long service records. The old guard should be uncomfortable with what’s going on.
Almost a year ago a Harvard business review The article, “Navigating Office Politics When There Is No Office,” anticipated what emerges: “Without the office, how can I pretend to work? The author makes a fundamental point for performance management in the future: “A virtual work environment offers many more opportunities to be judged on the outcome of your work. “
The article raises a related question that agencies will need to consider in the near future with the emergence of more hybrid work environments, with some employees returning to the office while others may never return. This triggers a very real possibility that organizations will develop a “two tier system of office policy” where those who work in an office are given preferential treatment.
It’s interesting (and relevant) that organizational behavior researchers have largely ignored government. The exception of course is the National Academy of Public Administration and its numerous studies on improving agency performance. The 2018 study which focused on the government’s “culture of compliance” – an obsession with obeying rules and checkboxes – summed up the problem with government performance. A key recommendation was to give agencies “the flexibility to design human capital systems to accomplish their missions”. It is even more important today.
Strict control is a serious obstacle to necessary changes and improved performance. Now, remote working and the change in manager / employee interactions have redefined performance management, but also made it urgent to plan for the new normal for the future.
Loose crops versus tight crops
The evidence for what the pandemic triggered is closely linked to the studies summarized in Michele Gelfand’s book: Rule-makers, rule-breakers: how narrow and cowardly cultures feed our world. It categorizes countries according to the nature of their cultures. Japan and Korea have narrow cultures while Israel and Belgium have loose cultures.
The traits that differentiate national cultures are similar to those of organizations. The loose / narrow distinction is relevant for understanding how organizations work, following rules, resistance to change, and the relationship between managers and their employees. To quote the book, “the army is the emblematic example of sealing”. At the end of the 19th century, railways were the first industry with a widely dispersed workforce, and they adopted military-style working rules. The era of public service was conceived around this time. Strict management was the common pattern in business for most of the last century, but decades ago leaders of knowledge organizations recognized that tight control was a barrier to great results and began to empowering employees, focusing on the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary for success.
It is important to understand the differences in the way organizations operate when the world of work experiences significant change. Certainly, there are successful organizations with narrow cultures. They operate efficiently and are based on well-defined and standardized procedures. Such standardization is deeply rooted in the civil service system. But when “change is the only constant” and the new generation of workers have expectations incompatible with strict supervision, every organization must assess where established practices are a barrier to continued success.
With the new loose working environment, the old guard will have to adapt. It starts with leadership. Gelfand cites the findings of a major, ongoing research study, Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE), which focuses on leadership styles. When the book was published, researchers had accumulated survey responses from more than 17,000 executives and managers in more than 900 organizations in 60 countries.
The data shows that employees of loose cultures “prefer visionary and collaborative leaders. They want leaders to advocate for change and hold their workers accountable. They want leaders who “work hard to get out of the way so that others can step up and innovate.” In contrast, in tightly managed organizations, employees want leaders who are “decisive”, value discipline and obedience, ”“ perform command and control management within a strictly hierarchical organization ”. Loose organizations have less discipline and reliability, but compensate with greater innovation.
The loose / narrow differences are also important in recruiting and retaining young workers early in their careers. Research shows they share common personality traits and behaviors and seek out potential employers who have an entrepreneurial culture, embrace change, value flexibility and give employees the opportunity to work with the latest technology. They value work-life balance. They still work hard and take pride in their work, but prefer to create a clear separation between their workplace and their personal life. The early rotation of new recruits is a warning; agencies need to understand why this is happening.
The research findings are clear. But for government to use the information, agencies must first assess their cultures, the impact of the pandemic, as well as current and projected skills gaps. The tight / loose difference is one of the many considerations that affect performance. This 2018 NAPA report was not the first and certainly will not be the last to call for more agency flexibility to manage talent.
A Canadian idea to import
Canada presented an idea that could help federal agencies move away from the outdated top-down control model. This is their “free agent” program which dates back to 2016. Under this program, highly qualified candidates are hired to work project to project in government departments. “The department and the free agent sign an agreement that specifies the duration of the contract. The employment period is project-based, ranging from one to eight months. Applicants have the freedom to choose which projects they work on, and agencies “have access to a pool of talented officials to tackle their difficult political issues.” Free agents are described as “entrepreneurial, risk-takers and innovators”.
Abe Greenspoon, the program’s talent manager, said in an interview in 2018, “Our program attracts people who want to make an impact. We give them the freedom to bring their unique perspectives to their work. The resulting increase in happiness and productivity is simply amazing! “This is usually the experience when closely supervised employees are empowered and have time to adjust to their newfound autonomy.
The idea is similar to the strategy adopted by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency when it was created. Over time, NGA has commissioned no less than 30 professional working groups (professional advisory boards) to address issues related to each profession and define critical performance elements. The strategy included aggressive employee outreach and training for managers on everything from process instruction to training on soft skills (such as holding feedback and coaching discussions with employees).
In other industries, Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are increasingly common to deal with work and employment issues. In higher education and healthcare, employee teams are created whenever people management practices need to be rethought. There, the practice reflects cultural value, collegiality.
Most agencies will not have the benefit of starting from scratch. The Canadian approach gives agencies the flexibility to move forward at a comfortable pace that allows them to tackle issues as they arise and also gives managers and employees time to feel confident. comfortable with change. Over time, the idea is likely to gain supporters among people who believe their talents are not valued. It may also be the only way for agencies to give Gen Z employees a work experience they find satisfying.
The executive decree DCI
Canada’s Free Agents, NGA PABs and ERGs represent a shift in focus towards employee empowerment and expect them to take a broader and proactive role in the management of the organization. Each strategy emphasizes the value of employee capabilities and results.
It is at the heart of President Biden’s decree on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. Agencies should assess all people management practices, eliminating prejudice and discrimination.
As such, it will be critical to tackle one of the least effective government practices: employee performance management. In today’s tight labor market, better use of employee capabilities is essential to improve agency performance.
In the words of one of Canada’s talent managers:
“I think we often forget the simple fact that organizations are made up of people who work in them. Rules, processes, guidelines, policies – they are created, maintained, respected and broken by people. And so one thing I don’t think I can overstate… is that everything we have done or not accomplished is because of the people.
“Where we were successful was often because people had good ideas, people worked hard, people supported other people, people influenced other people, and yes, I believe people have transformed other people’s beliefs or understanding of certain things. So my first and biggest point is simple: people are everything.
Government human capital practices were developed for an outdated work management philosophy. These practices are now a problem.