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The Federal Coach

Why fed workers need more autonomy

Daniel Pink
Daniel Pink is the author of several bestselling books about changing the world of work. His latest is Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which examines and overturns our conventional wisdom about human motivation. Pink also served as chief speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore and worked as an aide to former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

What leadership lessons have you learned from fatherhood?

There are differences, but individuals look at leaders in much the same way that kids view parents. They don't listen to what you say, but they watch what you do and that to me is the most important lesson.

What advice do you have for federal leaders who have a hard time directing their workers?

Understand that management leads to compliance, but self direction leads to engagement. It's a very difficult thing to do in the federal workforce, which is not known for its radical amount of autonomy.

There are two things that federal leaders could do. The Office of Personnel Management is moving to an experiment with the results-only work environment. That's a technique where people don't have schedules, they show up whenever they want, and they just have to get their work done.

Another is what this Australian company Atlassian does, which is once a quarter--or the feds could do it once every half year--say to their employees, "Go work on anything you want for one afternoon, do it the way you want. All we ask is that on Friday afternoon you show what you've created to the staff." They call these FedEx days, because you have to deliver something overnight.

It turns out that one day of intense, undiluted autonomy has led to a whole array of inventions. It's essentially getting out of people's way and allowing them to direct their lives even for that small amount of time.

Are there other simple techniques these leaders can use to convey ownership to employees?

Remind people that their work contributes to the larger whole. There's some very recent research of Harvard Business School that the top motivator at work is the sense of making progress. The days that people report feeling most motivated are the days that they make progress on something. What leaders can do is help individuals see that progress, because they don't always see it. Recognize, celebrate that progress.

What did you learn about leadership working in the federal government?

Giant organizations can breed a sense of learned helplessness. It's very hard to get things done in government. Do what you need to do, but not much more. That's dangerous, because no organization, public or private, is going to do anything great if people are feeling helpless or believe that they can't make a difference.

How can federal leaders use right brain qualities to get ahead?

You have a lot of people in the federal workforce who are very smart, have done well in school and succeeded in a world which prizes left brain abilities. I think more executive leaders and policymakers need those right brain abilities.

For instance, one of the abilities that matters most is design, because many of the problems in government are design problems--certainly healthcare is a complex design problem, but so is dependence on foreign oil. The more people see things as design challenges requiring design thinking, the more that they'll come up with effective solutions.

Editor's note: Do you know an inspiring public sector leader? Be in touch and tell us who Tom should interview next and what questions he should ask.

By Tom Fox

 |  May 26, 2010; 6:00 AM ET |  Category:  View from the Top Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: John Mayer's theme song for fed-hiring reform? | Next: Talking with your world-wide workforce

Comments

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the problem is, you have a number of federal employees who would just as soon do nothing all day, or maybe they'll shop on ebay. The federal government has made firing abusers so extremely difficult that many in management have just given up - the abuser will file grievances, EEO complaints, etc and upper management worries more about the politics than what is right and wrong. Most mid-managment will work push the work on the 80% who are good workers and just shove the other 20% in a corner.

Posted by: termiteavenger | May 28, 2010 1:29 AM

The Federal government ran much smoother and with more productive results before the hiring influx of college educated specialists that have filled the government in recent years. This belief that college workers should get paid more just doesn't add up and drives the cost of running the government higher.
What's wrong with going back to the successful lessons of the past that High School graduates can still can perform federal occupations and cost taxpayers less in payroll.

Posted by: whineridentifier
******************************************
Why didn't you something earlier? Of course, the same principle would apply to the private sector. We could have saved a gazillion dollars over the last thirty years or so. We would have shown those snotty Europeans, Japanese, Chinese and the rest of the over-educated world a thing or two. You betcha'.

I assume your going to tell us that YOUR job could never be performed by someone without a degree?

Posted by: st50taw | May 27, 2010 2:25 PM

But in order to have that autonomy, you would have to have managers who would actually oversee their employees to see if they're doing their work. But since that employee's salary isn't coming from their pocket or their budget, they justs let the dead weight sit there. Too many managers in the federal workforce are given promotions to management position, not because they're good managers, but it's the only way to give them "their" 14 or 15.

Posted by: duhneese | May 27, 2010 1:01 PM

Autonomy in the federal workforce is codespeak for them to watch porn all day. They enjoy their "autonomy".

Posted by: Cornell1984
*******************************************
That's what is known as projection. Since there is absolutely no way you can support that factually, we are left to conclude that it's based your assumption that everyone thinks and acts just like you.

Posted by: st50taw | May 27, 2010 1:00 PM

The Federal government ran much smoother and with more productive results before the hiring influx of college educated specialists that have filled the government in recent years. This belief that college workers should get paid more just doesn't add up and drives the cost of running the government higher.
What's wrong with going back to the successful lessons of the past that High School graduates can still can perform federal occupations and cost taxpayers less in payroll.

Posted by: whineridentifier | May 27, 2010 9:33 AM

Autonomy in the federal workforce is codespeak for them to watch porn all day. They enjoy their "autonomy".

Posted by: Cornell1984 | May 27, 2010 9:32 AM

I was fortunate when I worked to have several jobs in which I had almost total autotomy. I knew what had to be done and, so long as I did it, no one really questioned my methods. It worked out well for all concerned.

Posted by: John991 | May 27, 2010 9:12 AM

Ahhh! But has Mr. Pink ACTUALLY done any real work or is he just 'another' self-appointed expert on everything???

Posted by: joeblotnik49 | May 27, 2010 7:51 AM

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