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Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Leadership House Call

Stop Hating -- and Start Motivating -- Your Employees

The Question:

Q. I am a fairly new senior public manager, currently charged with increasing the performance of the people who work for me. I have repeatedly exhorted them, told them how important it is that we step it up a notch -- several notches actually -- and pushed them to do better. I have very few carrots or sticks to employ, as I did during in my previous career, which was in the private sector. I am really stymied. These folks seem addicted to complacency. -- Complacency-Addicts Manager

[Send your leadership questions to leadership@washingtonpost.com, or post them in the "comments" section below]

Dear Complacency-Addicts Manager:

It doesn't sound like you are having a lot of fun. But your characterization of the people who work for you as "addicted to complacency" is pretty revealing, of you more than them. As long as you believe your own rhetoric you can be assured that they will resist too.

Look at it from their perspective: Your people had a good thing going, and now you are disrupting their routines. The story they are telling themselves is undoubtedly very different than your story. They do not go to bed every night thinking of themselves as complacency addicts.

Here are five possible interpretations they may be making:

(1) "We were doing fine until he came along. I take pride in being thoughtful, deliberate and competent. He wants to trade off quality for ticking off the boxes."

(2) "If he thinks he is going to move up the food chain on my back, he's got another think coming."

(3) "Managers who come from the private sector are always the worst. They don't understand public sector realities, where there are multiple, competing, and sometimes even conflicting accountability systems."

(4) "Every new boss wants to leave his fingerprints on our division. This is just another flavor of the month, and he thinks he can force us to swallow it just by yelling."

(5) "I'm a manager, too, and while I may not always squeeze the last ounce of performance out of my people, I am empathetic. We are like a family, and we take care of each other."

My guess is that there are factions in this your unit telling themselves each of these stories and maybe some others as well.

So, begin by dropping the "complacency addict" line out of your mental repertoire. Start by engaging these folks where they are, not where you are. Be curious. Listen to their stories for clues as to what they really do care about, what their most noble values are, and what they are afraid of losing. I'm not suggesting that you buy into or accept their behavior, but you do need to understand the reasons behind their resistance to you.

For example, look at story #5. The folks in that faction value personal relationships. They want you to care about them as people, not just as performance engines. They want to be treated more humanely. Learn about their families. Celebrate their birthdays and other memorable occasions. The flavor-of-the-month faction (story #4) wants to play a role in the design and development of the new workforce culture. By working with them, you may have to sacrifice some of what you want, but you will undermine their resistance.

Next, look for allies. They may be few and far between, but you don't need many. They are probably afraid to support you because they fear being ostracized by their resistant colleagues. Work with them. Protect them. Validate them. And reward their hard work in any way you can, even perhaps by expending some of your political capital or hard-earned actual capital.

The point here is that haranguing the resisters from your moral high ground will not work. They think they are on moral high ground as well. It is not about the merits. It is about their fear that the future you want will not be as good for them as the past has been. And for some of them, they may well be right. There may be casualties of your productivity initiative, and how you treat them will affect whether or not their friends in the wait-and-see faction will come along. And without some effort on your part to see things from their point of view, you might become a casualty as well.

Becoming an effective leader is a slow, improvisational, experimental art. You need all the possible tools in your toolkit, not just the ones that worked for you in the past. Good luck to you -- and your employees.

[Send your leadership questions to leadership@washingtonpost.com, or post them in the "comments" section below]

By Cambridge Leadership Associates

 |  July 31, 2009; 5:08 PM ET |  Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg     Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Dear Publisher,

"Now you will be poor the rest of your life", to which Babette replies, "An artist is never poor". Philippa then tells her that in paradise Babette will indeed be the great artist God intended her to be.

The thing about luck is that it changes. Fine design cashes and that's business. I love your art. That is motivation enough for me. Now it's time to go back to mine. Some things can never be and some will always be. Live life to the fullest. The criminals don't stand a chance. We think we do. Keep thinking.

Posted by: Dermitt | August 19, 2009 9:05 AM

Keep loving your diamonds. There's motivation for a start.

Posted by: Dermitt | August 12, 2009 3:58 PM

How do we print this?

Posted by: NJStater | August 6, 2009 9:24 AM

No such thing as luck. You get cancer. It wasn't bad luck, it's just cancer. Now the cancer is Citibank. Bad luck? No, fraud on a massive scale designed to destabilize the United States from within. Start killing the cells before all the kids get the cancer. I just hate cancer, although maybe I should not. We could let the cancer spread and advertise it. Seems pointless.

Citicorp and Travelers Group on April 7, 1998. Bad deal as it turned out. Marriage made in HELL. Keep going.

Posted by: Dermitt | August 4, 2009 2:44 PM

Complacency-Addicts Manager as you stated does not understand the transition from the private to the public sector. I had the same problem when I transitioned as Manager of Technical Support/Communications/Databases. I found that the staff I inherited was dissatisfied that they had no formal training and I went out to get funding for two years of it for them (spread out over five years). The mood change was tremendous. Managers should first realize that their first responbility is to their staff. Whose arse they decide to kiss if they want to move up the food chain is up to them, but, I left knowing that my plate never had rump roast on it, and the staff was sad to see me go.

Posted by: jfregus | August 4, 2009 12:11 PM

No, it really did used to be "carrot and stick," meaning a carrot hanging by a string from a stick, in front of a draft animal--horses or mules, typically--the idea being, the mule would keep moving, trying to get the carrot it could never reach, but being a mule, was too stupid to realize that. Not sure that ever really worked, but that was the original usage. Not a very flattering motivational model, but right in line with the writer there.
More recent folk usage migrated to the "carrot or stick"--positive or negative reinforcement--maybe after most folks no longer saw draft animals (post WWII, I'm guessing). Sort of like "begs the question" has done a 180 in meaning.

(a quick google got www.word-detective.com/042702.html, among others)

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | August 4, 2009 12:01 PM

"Just a quibble: a stick is not motivational. It's not "carrots or sticks," it's "carrot on a stick." "

Uh, no it isn't. It's been "carrot or stick" forever: meaning using either reward or punishment. "Carrot on a stick"? Give me a break.

One more thing: "Here are six possible scenarios" -- and only five are listed. Was there a sixth that was deleted, or doesn't the columnist proofread?

Posted by: mebutle | August 3, 2009 12:18 PM


Assuming you have set specific goals for specific people, I would start keeping track and 'writing them up'. It will take you years to fire anybody in the public sector, and you may not succeed, but you need to get the ball rolling on these do-nothings you've inherited.

I've taken over groups of employees in both public and private settings. If the employees won't do the work that needs to be done, then you need to fire them and get employees that will.

Any other solution is just wishful thinking or a bunch of businesspeak - like the advice and other comments posted here - that won't ever accomplish anything.

Posted by: Heerman532 | August 3, 2009 12:08 PM

That's very sound advice, unfortunately this is contrary to what this News Paper writes when it covers DCPS and Michelle Rhee.

Posted by: Jet_Mech | August 3, 2009 11:39 AM

The writer here sounds like one of the worst sales mngrs I ever had...Would constantly ask for more and more sales, all the while trying to cut the budget and never had a strategy of how to get those increased sales. That's not leadership.

Posted by: JackBolly1 | August 3, 2009 10:31 AM

Coming from the outside public sector into a supervisory/managment position undoubtedly said to someone on that staff, "you're not worthy"... as most staff will apply for a promotion when it becomes vacant. And since government agencies reward stovepiping and discourage changing job series or moving to other agencies, It's a pretty sure bet that the Complacency-Addict Manager's selection denied a promotion to one or more of his/her subordinates.

To get past this, the manager will need to SHOW the staff that they ARE worthy... provide opportunities to increase expertise and learning so that they can advance their careers if they so choose.

I can empathise though, with the lack of carrots and sticks. We don't get expense accounts to buy tools or to employ various modalities of motivation in government work. There are things that managers can do to get around this, in terms of providing support and praise for staff and providing direction and guidance, rather than in hounding, scolding or harassing.

Posted by: trambusto | August 3, 2009 9:49 AM

What you are preceiving as an addiction to complacency may actually be battle fatigue.

Do you have any idea what it's been like to have lived through this economy for the last 20-30 years, and 4-5 recessions.

Constant job changes, threatened by the loss of one's home to gyrations in the real estate market, lack of gains in salary (even though productivity increased significantly), loss of any gains made in wages due to hikes to 20-30% on interest rates on credit card balances, and surrounded by 10-20% unemployment in many areas?

Meanwhile, an insulated elite in upper management, moves around above the fray and asks: why are you complaining?

It's been no picnic in the American workplace.

You might want to try to remember the old Native American saying: May my neighbor not criticize me, but hold his tongue until he has walked a mile in my moccasins.

Posted by: youmustbejoking1 | August 3, 2009 9:33 AM

One of the worst statements to be heard when new ideas come along is "But we've always done it this way". People fear change in most instances, and it seems that in the government sector this fear is magnified.

New ideas and programs are scary to entrenched employees and the public sector has so many of these. In many cases, empathy doesn't work - good, old-fashioned orders will work. In order to find out if a new program will work, it has to be tried. If it does not work as well or better than the old program, then can it and go on. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained" - but human nature, in many cases, fears the new.

Posted by: Utahreb | August 3, 2009 9:27 AM

Just a quibble: a stick is not motivational. It's not "carrots or sticks," it's "carrot on a stick."

Unless, of course, this manager is actually suggesting that he or she doesn't have the ability to punish people. As a new manager I'm not sure why you'd go that route right away anyway, but the LW does seem particularly dense.

Posted by: nagatuki | August 3, 2009 9:10 AM

The worst managers are the ones who come in and set new goals, but then don't give the employees any tools for meeting the target. If they were doing their best before, they're not going to be able to do better just because the target's been moved. If they were already slacking, being "exhorted" and "pushed" is going to have a short term impact at best.

Figure out some way to make the process more efficient. Study where the lags are and see how you can address them. Management isn't just telling people to work harder.

Posted by: hbc1 | August 3, 2009 8:31 AM

I think there's another option - that there really is an issue and the manager is legitimately frustrated. But I suspect this manager will need some patience. The Federal Sector is specifically designed NOT to turn on a dime, lest the most powerful organization in the world take to erractic behaviour. Change takes time, and it's not so much the public nature of government, but the size. Look at GM. Look at Citibank. These are organizations that have had huge problems adapting to a changing environment. TruthTeller jumps to conclusions that his so-called "experience" should have examined more closely.

Posted by: mwcob | August 3, 2009 8:28 AM

One should never ask questions , if they don't already have the answer.

Since nobody asked, I handled the Fortune 500 Co. in this fashion.

The trash build up constituted fire safety violations, combustibles. I notifed Corp Legal that in the event of fire, the blocked "egress's" would be an issue.
This did get some of the trash cleaned up.
Street wide,

It seems like it takes entirely too long to get anything done.

After 22 years being in a privately owned Co. where community,appearance, performance etc. were part of business, and then being part of Big Corp, I'm having a hard time adjusting.


Posted by: James210 | August 3, 2009 7:53 AM

So "Thetruthteller" thinks our Senior Public Manager is "arrogant, condescending, and out of touch." For a better definition of these qualities, I nominate Mr. Truthteller himself. After all...it takes a special level of cluelessness to trash all private sector employee motivational practices by invoking...Bernie Madoff! Hilarious.

I'm fairly certain that each and every organization Thetruthteller once "led" had a bodacious going away party when he left. Somehow, I doubt he was invited.

Posted by: jd5024 | August 3, 2009 3:26 AM

As a guy who has led organizations of 65, 185, and 650 people, I find this senior public leader to be arrogant, condenscending, and "out of touch." This leader views the world through "widgets." You lead and manage people by empowering them and making their jobs easier. If production goes up, great. If not, make sure you look in the mirror before pointing fingers. The comment about the private sector is laughable. Look at what the private sector has done lately: Enron, Madoff, Wall Street, on and on. You were not leading then, you were paying people exorbitant amounts of money.

Posted by: TheTruthTeller | August 3, 2009 2:36 AM

Casualties to productivity...

How about the well-being, security and over health of the office environment.

Good managers, know that if they control the ground , they control the people.

Th manager needs to do some things on her own in order to gain respect of some of the employees.

Taking initiative can be difficult and can be high risk, weapons in my case.

I take pride in appearance,not only myself but my company.
I came in one day to pick up trash around my office. Main road, 200 yards from Courthouse. While picking up trash, there was three attempts to penetrate the property.
Needless to say, I was disciplined on the pretense of another issue. Violating the chain of command. To my knowledge the issue of the penetrations has never been investigated, and my interpretation of what was occur-ing was dismissed.

So, let me ask this question,
Why would a Corporation tolerate trash around their building and criminal activity?


Posted by: James210 | August 1, 2009 11:52 AM

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