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Everything I've learnt about being a great Civil Service manager

Adam Bricknell - the Department for Transport’s Joint-Head of Data Science tells us how he became a superstar manager - and how one particularly good book got him there.

When I was a newly-minted leader of a team of Civil Service analysts, I found myself at sea and with one big question: how can I become a really great manager? To figure this out, I founded a long-running study group, did management training, and tried plenty of popular (and not-so-popular) practices. And dare I say, it worked! Not a full transformation, but dammit if my team wasn’t getting things done!


In this post I share my top takeaways from the book I found most useful by far: The Handbook of the Principles of Organisational Behaviour. It’s directly applicable, evidence-based and so damn comprehensive: a true contender for the daddy of all management books. The subtitle says it all: Indispensable knowledge for evidence-based management. It’s been three years since I read it and tried to apply the most sensible bits in my work as a manager of analysts in the Civil Service. I also talk about the most important things I’ve learnt about management through my own experience as a manager. The below leaves a huge amount out, but, with that caveat, enjoy!

Paragraphs in blue italics are my additional views rather than the book’s.


Recruitment

Intelligence predicts job performance more than any other characteristic. This is followed by conscientiousness and emotional stability.


Hiring with intelligence tests isn’t always possible, and it does leave out domain knowledge. It’s often better to use proxies for these such as a range of work tasks and tests. How someone answers competency-based questions can tell you something about their emotional stability: what do their answers tell you about how they perceive the people they work with?


Candidates with more experience tend to perform better only within the first five years: after this, the number of years on the job stops predicting performance. So some experience is good, but loads of experience might not improve performance any more. This is true on average, so it won’t be true for everyone!


If you can’t offer someone a high salary, you can pay people in meaning: many people want to do useful things and you can provide them with an opportunity to fulfil this need. You can emphasise meaning in job adverts by making their contribution and impact clear (and making it sound fun!)


Retention

Many senior managers like to say ‘people quit because the Civil Service doesn’t pay enough’: in my experience, this is often untrue. The book claims that one thing consistently makes jobs more satisfying. Can you guess what it is? …..










(guess!....)




….




(… drumroll…….)




…..


Making the job mentally challenging! People tend to have greater job satisfaction when they are more challenged and engaged with the work itself: this predicts job satisfaction more than pay, relationship with co-workers or supervisor, or anything else.


In part 3 of the book, one of the authors, Timothy Judge argues that 5 facets make work challenging and fulfilling. Can you give your team most or all of these?:

  1. The ability to see your work progress from start to end – even just understanding the bits you don't do yourself

  2. Task significance: understanding how what you’re doing contributes to the organisation’s larger goals

  3. Work that requires a variety of skills

  4. Autonomy

  5. Plenty of feedback

You can boil this down to three needs that many people have: mastery, autonomy and purpose. ‘Mastery’ here means ‘high (or increasing) competence at the work’. What can you do to push these buttons for your team?


Setting goals


People will commit to a high-bar goal if they believe they can reach it. It can help to reinforce someone’s belief in their own ability or ability to grow. You can do this by highlighting their past successes, the skills they’ve already gained and the goals they’ve achieved.


It’s more motivating if the meaning of the tasks is salient. This is related to employees’ need for purpose. This can include all kinds of reminders, particularly giving the employee some contact with beneficiaries of their work. If actual contact is not possible, you can remind employees how people will benefit from their efforts.


Unlike with money, the returns diminish very mildly for social reinforcement or recognition. So, within certain limits, you can't reinforce too often!


Goal interdependency is the sense that your success depends on the success of others. This can be very motivating. In my experience, the narrative of we’re all growing and learning together can be helpful.


Feedback


When giving positive feedback, it is much better to recognise specific things the employee did well, rather than a general "good job".


Errors can be framed as opportunities to reflect and learn.


Social reinforcement from the manager has the largest effect, though reinforcement from others is also impactful.


When you ask for feedback people may withhold useful information about things you could do better, for fear of upsetting you. I find it helpful to explicitly say that they will be doing me a favour by providing critical feedback, as it’s often the bit that helps me improve the most! If you act on constructive feedback and make it clear that it was because of their input, this will encourage your colleagues to do it more!


Developing the team


Look to the future: if you think longer term, you’ll have more scope to be ambitious without rushing. This may require you to commit to staying in one post for a while. This means there is a trade-off between getting more varied experience and having impact in the next five or so years.


If you do think long term you’re already ahead of the game. From one survey, only 13% of employers "understood clearly" what capabilities they'd need in 3-5 years time.


After-action reviews can be helpful, since they create positive feedback loops. It can be helpful if someone outside the team facilitates these reviews.


A useful concept is partitioned information responsibility. This means that rather than everyone needing to know everything, you ensure that at least one person in the team knows each piece of important information, and that everyone knows that they’re the person to talk to about that thing. Even after accounting for resilience to annual leave and turnover, applying this concept deliberately to a team can increase a team’s collective knowledge and expertise quite a bit.


If a team needs to learn something, set at least one person on the team the explicit objective to learn that thing.


Leadership and Vision


Know why you’re doing what you’re doing and communicate this to your team. You probably have some idea if you’re reading this! This positive vision is motivating and sustainable in the long term. It also saves you from resorting to harmful tactics that managers sometimes use to bring people together, for example, fostering an ‘us vs them’ mindset.


And finally, in a classic case of saving the best till last…


A leader’s most important job is to decide what work the team is going to do! Prioritise the most important things. Actively search for and create projects that are going to deliver huge value. See this section of the IGC career guide for some great ideas about prioritisation. Far too many brilliant people with brilliant processes are working on things which ultimately aren’t that big of a deal.



We hope you found this summary from Adam helpful! If you would like to discuss how to apply these ideas in your own team - sign up to have a call with us here.