Federal Manager's Daily Report

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By: Martha Kesler, MSOD and Dr. Katy Paul-Chowdhury from Kotter, and Angela Carsten from Defense Acquisition University

As we begin the annual Federal performance evaluation cycle, leaders and managers are grappling with how to conduct performance reviews for the strangest work year in recent memory.

The past 12 months have spanned pandemic closures and widespread telework mandates for up to 60% of Federal employees, a summer of cautious office reopening, and a sharp reversal with the current Delta variant wave. Managers are working through the implications of assessing the performance of people they may only have seen on video for a year and ensuring the fairness of appraisals across hybrid workforces.

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This presents an extraordinary opportunity for managers to reflect on their leadership style and make changes that will position themselves and their employees for success in the year ahead. Using three of Kotter’s change leadership principles as a lens, this article identifies a set of questions that evaluating managers should ask themselves today.

Management + Leadership

Management refers to a set of behaviors, tools, and structures intended to direct and control work. Its goals include standardization, productivity, and minimizing distractions, among others. Leadership is about crafting vision and direction, inspiring and motivating people, and creating a culture that encourages everyone to contribute to the best of their abilities.

The past 18 months of pandemic telework and hybrid office attendance have meant that much of the day-to-day management of workflows has shifted from managers to employees themselves. People increasingly control how, where, and when they work. Aside from mandatory videocalls, employees determine how and when they interact with colleagues. This means the manager’s role has shifted as leadership skills and activities assume greater weight. Managers increasingly need to inspire, engage, support, and shape the work environment to help motivate strong performance among employees and steer the direction in which the agency is headed.

Questions for reflection:

·       Where are my employees taking on more self-management? How can I support this process through coaching and mentorship?

·       Where have I taken on more of a leadership role? Where do I need to focus my leadership efforts to elevate my employees’ performance in the coming year?

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Have to + Want to

Employees’ physical presence—a poor but widely used proxy for performance and engagement—is now harder to ascertain. Some agencies’ missions or organizational models have shifted over the past year in response to the pandemic or the new Administration. This means some employees’ roles have changed, as well. Under these circumstances, performance expectations—framed wherever possible in terms of deliverables and results—become increasingly important. Intentional framing, communicating expectations clearly, and holding people accountable for what they “have to” do are essential management skills in a teleworking or hybrid world.

Leaders should also recognize that people are more motivated and engaged when they are doing work they “want to” do. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen countless examples of Federal employees showing extraordinary ingenuity, collaboration, and dedication as they created new ways to serve their constituents and deliver on their agency’s mission. The source of this energy was a strong sense of purpose and desire to do whatever was needed in service of the greater good.

Questions for reflection:

·       How clear have I been in setting and communicating expectations with employees? What impact has this had on my employees’ performance?

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·       Do I know what my direct reports are most passionate about?

·       Do I hold people accountable for delivering on expectations throughout the year?

·       How can I be more intentional in setting expectations for the year to come?

·       Am I motivating people to do their best work by paying attention to what they want to do?

Head + Heart

When leading change, it is important to connect with employees’ heads (the strategic imperative, business case) and their hearts (the meaning, purpose, sense of optimism, larger good). As you consider people’s performance over the past year, through all the upheavals, how much was each one engaged?

One way to activate head and heart is to help each individual establish a clear line of sight from their own job to the delivery of your agency’s mission, as well as the wellbeing of fellow citizens and the country overall. Another is to make sure people feel positively challenged by their work—that they have opportunities to excel, grow their skills, and advance in their careers.

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Managers should also check in with their own head and heart balance as they begin evaluations. While federal employees are required to meet job expectations and deliver on the agency’s mission, many are facing untold stress, and it is important to be compassionate. Perhaps a person struggled to perform at their usual level this year—but were there places in which they went above and beyond?

Questions for reflection:

·       To what extent does my leadership engage employees’ heads and hearts? What imbalances might I be able to correct that could lead to increased engagement and performance?

·       How have I helped my employees understand the connection between big organizational goals, and the tasks they perform daily?


Martha Kesler, MSOD, is a principal at Kotter, who directs Kotter’s federal portfolio. She can be reached at martha.kesler@kotterinc.com. Dr. Katy Paul-Chowdhury is an affiliate at Kotter. She can be reached at katy.paul-chowdhury@kotterinc.com. Angela Carsten is a Director of Human Resources at Defense Acquisition University.

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