Putting the Super in Supervisor: Determinants of Federal Employee Evaluation of Supervisors

Article excerpt

With a capable and willing work force, most organizations actually succeed or fail due to the quality of the direction provided by their leaders and managers. The first-line supervisor is, for most employees, the physical embodiment of the organization.(1) The supervisor transmits and translates the organization's missions, values, and messages. In addition, the supervisor voices employee concerns to those in the hierarchal chain. Hence, how the supervisor is perceived is also likely to be how the organization is perceived.(2) The result of total quality management (and the subsequent emphases on reinventing and reengineering) along with the iconoclastic, anti-government Republican revolution, is the downsizing of the public sector. While it is optimistically hoped that this will enhance overall efficiency, little real effort is actually devoted to documenting or assuring such. Unfortunately, it is mainly assumed that efficiency will simply happen.

In efforts to preserve essential functions and cope with these downsizing directives, public organizations have shed middle management and supervisory positions in order to spare positions involved in the direct delivery of governmental services. As a result, the first-line supervisor has become a more important player in the managerial team coordinating organizational effectiveness.

Why do employees follow? Why are some supervisors admired, while others denigrated or feared. In short, what puts the super into the supervisor. The 1989 Merit Principles Survey (MPS) of federal employees(3) includes a set of Likert-scale items asking individual employees to assess their immediate supervisor (see methodological appendix for specific items). The individual items each assess a different criterion of supervisory effectiveness. Hence, the composite index serves as an overall measure of the successful supervisor. These items focus on the tasks of communication and participation, the effective use of individual and work group skills and abilities, the supervisor's technical and leadership skills, and the perceived climate of trust and fairness. Together these eight items create a cumulative supervisor evaluation (SUEVAL) index (a = .9450).

Regression analysis of the cross-sectional 1989 Merit Principles Survey examines federal employee attitudes linked to the evaluation of their supervisor. The independent "determinants" of supervisor success are grouped into job and work characteristics along with demographic controls. Job characteristics consist of items measuring the assessment of the performance appraisal process, performance rating received, skill utilization, and experience of prohibited practices. Work characteristics address job satisfaction, extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation, acceptance of the pay-for-performance concept, and the desire for greater political participation. Demographic variables control for age, years of service, education, pay level, supervisory status, and gender.

These independent variables mix the hard, technical aspects of government work with its soft, behavioral elements. Like business organizations, government agencies promote on the basis of technical competence. However, governments often expect their supervisors to continue performing some of these technical duties. Governmental supervisors are, indeed, often "player-coaches." In addition, supervisors must also become knowledgeable of an array of organizational and managerial behaviors. These must be integrated into a system fostering a unified organizational climate of trust and fairness.(4)

Employee assessment of supervisory performance, especially if formal 360-degree or subordinate appraisals are employed, is a method for measuring responsibilities for employee development and communications. The effectiveness with which organizational goals are transmitted can be gauged. It is also useful for monitoring and reinforcing good supervisory behavioral practices. …