Variations on Poor Leadership Driving Discontent in the Federal Workplace

Failed leadership ends up destroying an organization. These are two of the worst offenders.

Staffing, work life balance, effective communications, leadership, training, and long-term technology trends would all qualify as concerns to all categories of federal workers and all types of federal supervisors.

Based on the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) results, conversations and discussions I have had over the years and my own disappointing experience in the Federal workforce, leadership would appear to be a foreign concept that is rarely seen in the Federal workplace and often misunderstood. I have met more than my share of individuals who, by job description and role, could have and should have been leaders but instead were micro-managers on the one extreme or absent from those daily actions and activities that might potentially require leadership on the other.

The Micro-Manager

A consistent source of discontent that I run into would have to be that all too common destructive species of leader, the micro-manager. I have seen far too many of these individuals over the years, have worked for a world class micro-manager and would enthusiastically cry the plague of inadequacy with which they infect the federal workplace.

A micro-manager could accurately be described as an anti-leader in that in general he or she has little or no use for the people around them, is only willing to employ them because they are not physically equipped to do all the work themselves and would only very rarely do something as vile as complimenting extra effort or a job well done. If they give compliments, they might have to promote or otherwise recognize, and if they were to do that, they might give an employee the idea that he or she was doing something other than taking up space.

Most frightening of all, the employee might show initiative or pay attention to detail and expect to get compliments all the time. Nothing good could possibly come of that, right?

Staff members finding themselves working for a micro-manager quickly discover that innovation or initiative are not desirable attributes and will come to understand that any praise or acknowledgement of a job well done will not be forthcoming and promotions always belated and always grudging.

Senior leaders, or for that matter frontline supervisors, who would do it all themselves, who would find it very difficult to trust their staff, who try very hard to control and monitor the minutia and microscopic detail that make up their job or area of responsibility are destined to be frustrated and fall short of their goals and expectations. Along with the difficultly they have in trusting people, they are generally unappreciative of those who work for them and in their manic drive for control, they discourage initiative and often suffer huge turnover.

Do not hate these poor, lonely, lost souls, but run like heck if you see one and abandon any ideas of changing or redeeming them. You will find them decidedly uncompromising and resistant, and they will see your attempts as proof positive of your inadequacy. They are entirely happy in their misery.

The micro-manager sees turnover as the result of unfortunate human failing, and with little effort toward understanding why he or she has such difficulty in holding onto staff or earning their loyalty, they quickly find their low opinion of people reinforced again and again and again. They just don’t get it. They are, and will forever remain, their own worst enemy.

Seagull Managers

Another unfortunate species of non-leader we see all too frequently in the Federal workplace are the ones that seem to be there and available where there is praise or credit to be given but in between would seem nearly invisible, not even moderately interested in knowing or interacting with the individual staff members that make up their teams.

They are a decidedly closed book when it comes to vision or expectation and are clearly not interested in the growth of either the team or the individual team members, much preferring to be unavailable and nearly invisible, occupying a vague undefined space within an organization and nearly impossible to see, anticipate or pin down, that is until they deem a problem has arisen.

As Ken Blanchard noted in The One Minute Manager, “Seagull managers fly in (without understanding), make a lot of noise, dump (crap) on everyone, then fly out.”

Federal staff who find themselves saddled with these ghost-like leaders often find themselves dressed up with nowhere to go, on their own without guidance or direction and entirely vulnerable. Since there is no direction or guidance forthcoming, all actions are at one’s own risk and of course there is always the peril of that ‘dumping’ action, something to keep things interesting, as if a complete lack of direction, guidance or leadership weren’t enough.

Organizational excellence is always a choice, but when we, as leaders, are excluding our staff members from the conversation, that choice has already been made.

One of the most common complaints I hear from senior managers is that their people have no initiative and must be constantly pushed and prodded to do the things they are asked.

Initiative is one of those incredible behaviors that we just never get enough of, but it is also one of those things that must be nurtured, it never just happens.

When I hear a supervisor within an organization complain about a lack of initiative from his or her staff, I want to understand why this is the case and what are we doing as leaders to contribute to it. If most of our staff is unwilling to take that leap, then we as leaders have failed.

When our staff members do not feel a connection with us as supervisors and leaders and therefore with our team or organization, a natural result is lowered production, a complete lack of motivation or mission and of course turnover. Can we afford this? Is the constant turmoil and disruption worth it?

Leadership is there to assure our best effort, not as an impediment. Lead, follow or get out of the way.

About the Author

Brian Canning recently retired from the National Institutes of Health (DHHS) as a Change Management Specialist in addition to 30 years in the automotive repair industry with many senior leadership positions. He has been a business consultant and leadership coach and has over 70 articles published, mostly on leadership and business process.