Welles: Trust in managers

Leaders must communicate with employees to make pay for performance work

A leading question from federal employees about pay-for-performance is whether managers will treat them fairly under a new system. A closely related question is whether managers who would be held accountable are prepared for the change.

Having trust in managers is an issue in both the

private and public sectors. In 2004, about 35 percent of new managers and executives in industry failed in their jobs within the first 18 months, according to a survey by Right Management Consultants, a career transition and organizational consulting firm. The primary reason: their inability to build strong relationships and teamwork with subordinates and peers.

The second biggest reason they failed was their inability to accomplish the most important objectives expected of them, followed by their inability to grasp internal politics.

"It is more a lack of understanding than a lack of trust," said Michael Beckmann, the Office of Personnel Management's acting deputy associate director of the Center for Leadership Capacity Services. The prospect of pay-for-performance, he said, "is like a pig looking at a watch -- interesting but not sure what it would do for them."

How to manage change and remain productive is a challenge for managers. Judith Douglas, vice president for leadership and performance at the Council for Excellence in Government, said that although any change brings uncertainty, change that affects the wallet is especially unsettling.

"To build trust, leaders need to demonstrate that they care about people succeeding and give them the tools and training to succeed," she said.

Douglas recommends working on transparent and collaborative communication. "Dialogue on what the organization is trying to accomplish, what is expected and how expectations are being met is exceedingly important," she said.

"It requires managers to be a little more adaptive, nimble, predictive and flexible," Beckmann said.

That is no small task. OPM is going to place a high value on managers learning those competencies as it prepares for pay-for-performance changes.

Simulations and small-team training are some of the techniques that will be used to reinforce skills. When everyone learns together, the theory goes, misunderstandings and anxiety decrease and trust increases.

Both the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Agency for International Development have used the team approach in the past. OPM has customized that training to meet specific agency needs and is now looking to expand this focus at its learning centers.

"The most successful managers are continuous learners," Beckmann said. "Experienced managers not only learn but add value back into a classroom."

Douglas said leadership does not need to be linked to a management job title. And leadership skills can be learned and practiced throughout a career. She also said managers should be conscious of their own behavior as a model for the behavior they want in others.

As a thought for all employees in changing times, Douglas said, "it's important for the leaders of tomorrow to act with courage in chaotic environments."

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.