Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Assessing the Performance of Supervisors: Lessons for Practice and Insight into Middle Management Resistance to Change

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Assessing the Performance of Supervisors: Lessons for Practice and Insight into Middle Management Resistance to Change

Article excerpt


Data from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board's First-Line Supervisors survey conducted in 1991 is investigated to assess the relative power of ratings on twelve management functions (what managers do) and nine effectiveness characteristics (how the work is performed) in the prediction of performance appraisal outcomes. Findings from this secondary analysis of the MSPB survey data indicate that a subset of the Office of Personnel Management's Management Excellence Inventory (MEI) provides a broadly useful foundation for public sector supervisor performance appraisal. As importantly, however, the analysis reported here also reveals some troublesome findings regarding impediments to employee empowerment and the devolution of problem solving incentives to lower levels of bureaucratic authority. There is evidence that middle managers tended to view supervisors less favorably when they took a greater strategic view and exercised more leadership initiative in problem solving. The more intrepid supervisors were indeed taking career risks (receiving lower performance ratings) by engaging in more reinvention of government than their bosses were comfortable with at the dawn of the federal reinventing government effort.


This study examines the perceptions of public sector second-line supervisors which come into play in assessing their own subordinate, first-line supervisors with respect to what factors contribute to their employees' success. The first-line supervisor nearly universally translates organizational goals and objectives into implementable instructions to operatives; the supervisor mediates "what is to be done" between the management and employees. Consequently, the accurate appraisal of supervisory performance is of considerable importance. Recent research in this area has focused on extending the conventional assessment of job-related tasks to include "organizational fit" competencies that enable the individual's job performance to be integrated successfully into an organization's overall mission (Bowen, Ledford, and Nathan, 1991; van Dyne and LePine, 1998).

The Federal First-Line Supervisor Survey (MSPB, 1992) is used for an examination of second-line supervisors' perceptions of the relative importance of a set of tasks and performance characteristics, and to assess how these perceptions relate to their evaluation of the job incumbent's overall performance. The job tasks and performance characteristics considered entail the major responsibilities or functions of a supervisory job; hence, judgments on those elements of a supervisor's performance and personal qualities should be strongly related to an overall assessment of how well a particular supervisory job is being performed. Because organizations selectively recruit (and orientate and train) to enhance success, performance appraisal ratings are understandably positively skewed. This study shows that the federal government workforce is typical in this regard. The vast bulk of the federal first-line supervisors studied here (about 80 percent) received "exceeds fully successful" and "outstanding" ratings; qualitative assessments were equally skewed to the "effective" and "very effective" choices (about 90 percent). Virtually no first-line supervisor (under half a percent) was formally classified as "unsatisfactory" or "minimally successful," or qualitatively judged as "not effective."

The idea of simplifying performance appraisal systems into two-point, "Pass-Fail" options is currently under wide discussion, especially in the federal government (Friel, 1998; U.S. Office of Personnel Management, 1996a, 1996b, 1997, 1998). While the existing five- (and seven-) point performance appraisal scales offer the illusion of fine distinctions in regard to determining performance ratings, the reality is that few supervisors actually use all the options available. Virtually no one is ever classified in any "failing" category. …

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