Most of us in leadership positions in small government agencies have had some part in conditioning our employees to “conserve resources,” “do more with less,” or “be innovative.” Often, these trite directives are cascaded down through an agency via memos from on high to employees who have been totally inoculated against them. Who can blame them? It’s not because employees don’t care about being more efficient or innovative. Rather, it is that as leaders, we engage with them in the wrong place: This is my problem as your leader, so now it’s your problem. There is a better place to engage them.
Case in point: A phenomenal change occurred within the Office of Inspector General at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), beginning in 2011. The OIG rapidly shifted from an office that was characterized by poor communication, operational inefficiencies, and a low trust in leadership to a high-performance organization. By 2015 and again in 2016, the office had the highest score ever recorded by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management on its annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. And since then, the TVA OIG has been recognized as a Best Place to Work by the Partnership for Public Service.
Essentially, the OIG evolved into a cohesive team in which employees drive excellence and a healthy work culture. This fundamental shift began with the realization that, as leaders in the OIG, we had been addressing employees from the wrong place. We discovered three key actions leaders can take to influence employees to care about agency initiatives like conserving resources:
- Objectively assess your own credibility to ask employees to care about what you care about.
- Focus on what would cause employees to embrace an initiative as their own.
- Exercise personal vulnerability with employees and invite them to help you make the initiative successful.
Assessing Your Own Credibility as a Leader
As leaders, we often make the fatal mistake of launching a new initiative without an objective assessment of our own credibility with our employees. Think of this in market terms as your “stock price.” This is where we tend to be hopelessly optimistic. As the inspector general at the Tennessee Valley Authority, I learned that my stock price needed to be much higher to have any creditability when I went to my employees to ask them to support my “latest and greatest” program.
Personally, I was oblivious to my own mindset about how I saw our employees. That mindset “leaked” out in ways that was a deal breaker for my employees. If this sounds too esoteric for you, well, it certainly was for me as well five or six years ago. But it is essential to influencing employees, which is primarily what we as leaders try to do.
Here’s the rub: As a manager, you are probably not the best judge of how employees perceive how you see them. I know I had a charitable, self-serving view of how my employees saw me. I recall telling myself, “Oh, I have an open-door policy and I get input all the time” or “My folks stop me in the hall and tell me what is going on.” But the only input that counts is the input which those around you can give when there are no concerns about negative consequences for them.
Seriously, how many times has an employee confronted you with their belief that what you said or did was wrong? That kind of feedback is usually limited to anonymous 360-dregree feedback or internal hotlines. Even then, employees often suspect that it’s not entirely safe to give their boss feedback that might be perceived as negative. Unfortunately, I had sent some unintended messages. These were understood by my employees as, “He always thinks his ideas are better than mine” or “If it goes wrong, he looks at me first and a lot of times it was him.” The difference between my view of how I was coming across and how employees viewed me is almost comical in hindsight—except for the damage that it did to our relationship and the OIG’s performance.
So, if my mission is to influence my employees to care about maximizing resources or anything else for that matter, the right starting place is having a good assessment of how much creditability I have with them. The key is not better communication or a better strategic plan, but whether your employees believe that you care about them as people and that you get what it is like to be in their position. For me, that meant critically examining my existing mindset about my employees.
Why Should Employees Care About Conserving Resources?
After doing some soul searching about your own credibility with your employees, consider this question: “What would cause employees to care and continue to care about a better use of our agency’s resources?”
The traditional government manager’s spiel usually is something along the lines of “We owe a duty to the taxpayers to use every dollar wisely, and I am depending on you to make this new initiative work.” While that pitch might be inspirational to the manager, it is usually not inspirational to the employee.
The manager is making the classic mistake of pitching to employees that they should care about what she cares about without ever probing what might really motivate employees. We skip this step because we assume that as leaders we must drive the conservation effort to make it successful. Such initiatives actually have better staying power if they are owned and driven by employees who see a benefit to them.
Instead of starting with why the initiative is important to either your boss up the chain or to you, start with trying to answer the question, “Why would this be important to my employees?” This is where we stumble. For example, could it save time or lower the stress level of employees? In other words, can you tie a personal motivation to a management initiative? The quest then is to think through how to answer every employee’s implicit question of “what’s in it for me?”
Our paradigm shift came from seeing our employees tackle a thorny operational problem that required them to own the process. For years, the TVA OIG had struggled with IT officials to complete an annual report that is mandated by federal law. Each year IT audit employees in the OIG found themselves waiting for TVA IT employees to provide data held by them that were necessary to complete the report.
The experience was painful for everyone. TVA IT employees complained that they didn’t have the time to meet the OIG schedule and often they claimed that what we were asking for was not clear. The result for several years had been that our OIG IT audit employees were scrambling at the last minute to meet the report deadline and often vacations or family commitments were sacrificed. Our OIG employees were frustrated, as were TVA agency employees.
Determined not to continue to repeat this same inefficient process, TVA OIG IT audit employees decided to meet and brainstorm about how to get off this merry-go-round. Their collective solution was to hold a one-day summit with TVA IT employees. At this point, TVA IT employees were motivated to avoid the same frustrations that they had experienced in years past, and they agreed to participate.
Communication was enhanced by face-to-face dialogue, and they cleared up points of confusion. Equally important was the opportunity for both the OIG and TVA to clarify their intentions in trying to work toward getting this report done. They found that explaining intent in the right environment reduced the previous friction and misgivings.
This employee-driven process accelerated the progress of the report, reduced the total time by a third, and made the lives of our employees much less hectic. More important, perhaps, this experience gave our employees a glimpse of the practical value to them in taking the lead in finding innovative ways to perform at a higher level. That turns out to be contagious.
Your Role as the Leader
Most leaders will get their role wrong. That is because it is counterintuitive to do the things necessary to create the right climate for employees to drive resource conservation. This mindset comes from the fear that unless I control and drive the process, my employees won’t know what to do. Employees sniff this out for what it is: an implicit lack of trust in them and their abilities. For those of us in the TVA OIG, the journey has been turbocharged by high trust that has turned into high performance and efficiency. It is a journey that I can heartily recommend.
Note: Richard Moore retains all copyright interests in the article above, which includes content from his upcoming book Me First Leadership.