Federal Leaders Handling the Positive and the Negative with Equal Ineptitude

Federal employees in leadership roles often fail to handle positive and negative interactions well with their staff members. This can lead to problems.

The federal sector is a complex and often challenging environment for employees and leaders alike. With a range of bureaucratic processes and procedures, it can be difficult for leaders to navigate the terrain and effectively manage or lead staff, though as leaders we need to try.

One area that has consistently been an issue in the federal workplace is the handling of positive employee interactions such as promotions, awards and recognition of a job well done. This inability to handle positive interactions can have serious implications and even give insight into leaders when it comes to their handling (or not handling) negative employee interactions such as poor performance reviews and disciplinary actions. Leaders who are reluctant to effectively handle positive employee interactions will likely be even less determined and reluctant to handle the negative ones, as by their very nature they are more difficult and often fraught with emotion.

Why Do Leaders Fail to Handle Positive Interactions Well?


One possible reason many leaders fail to appropriately handle positive interactions may be rooted in the bureaucratic nature of the federal workplace. Leaders in this environment often have to work within strict guidelines and procedures that limit their ability to make independent decisions.

As a result, when it comes to recognizing employees for their hard work, they may struggle or even be unwilling to navigate the complexities of the system to effectively reward their staff. It is difficult to find the upside in failing to recognize the high performers on a team, but it is happening every day. The downsides are many.

Lack of Training

Another possible reason for this failure may be a lack of training and development for would-be leaders in the public sector. In many cases, federal leaders are promoted or appointed based on their technical skills (or other factors), rather than their leadership abilities.

Leadership is often seen as a strange and foreign concept to many occupying leadership roles in the federal sector and as a result, they may not have the essential skills to effectively manage and motivate their staff. Without proper training and development opportunities, leaders may struggle to create a positive work environment that fosters employee engagement and productivity.

As serious a problem as this is in handling positive employee interactions, this can have even more serious implications when it comes to handling negative employee interactions such as poor performance reviews and disciplinary actions, as leaders who lack the necessary skills may be ill-equipped to effectively manage these difficult situations.

Lack of Resources

Another reason you often hear for this failure to engage employees may be a lack of resources.

In many cases, federal agencies are underfunded and understaffed no doubt, but acknowledging an employee’s success is so important and the benefits so overwhelming, leaders cannot blame a lack of resources as the reason for not celebrating or highlighting an accomplishment. Saying thanks or a public acknowledgement is free except the time it takes to speak the words. Many leaders would seem too busy to try.

What Are the Consequences?

Put simply, leaders who are unable or unwilling to effectively recognize and reward their staff with promotions, awards or recognition are likely to struggle even more when it comes to managing poor performance and disciplinary actions.

When employees feel undervalued and underappreciated, they are more likely to become disengaged and unproductive. This can make it difficult for leaders to effectively manage poor performance and disciplinary actions, as employees may be less receptive to feedback and less motivated to improve their performance.

Unfortunately, ignoring poor performance or administering discipline won’t make it go away, and if anything, they will get worse if they go unchecked, potentially spreading their misbehaviors throughout the organization if not addressed.

All of us, at one time or another, have failed or fallen short of expectations. Our job as leaders is to guide our staff members through this adversity, not to abandon them in their moment of need. The quality of our leadership will determine if they grow, learn, endure, and ultimately succeed or simply give up. As leaders, we should be lifting them up.

What Are the Benefits of Effective Staff Interactions?

One of the key benefits of effective staff interactions from any leader is the ability to highlight and reinforce positive behaviors. When employees feel valued and appreciated, they are more likely to be engaged and productive, and are more likely to continue exhibiting the positive behaviors that contribute to the success of the organization.

Another key benefit of effective staff interactions is our consistent and unbiased ability as leaders to draw attention to and hold staff accountable for poor performance and adverse behavior. This involves providing constructive feedback and addressing issues when they arise, setting clear expectations and holding employees accountable for meeting them all, while providing support and resources to help them improve and grow.

When leaders effectively manage negative behaviors, they can prevent small problems from escalating into larger issues that can fester and negatively impact an entire organization.

As leaders, our job is to recognize when an employee is not meeting expectations, both holding them accountable and providing them with a path forward. Leaders need to lead! 


A common problem in the federal workplace is high performing employees going above and beyond, day in and day out, with nobody in leadership seeming to notice or care, while at the same time seeing employees who are underperforming, who are frequently falling short of expectations and missing deadlines with no apparent concern, consequences, or comment from leadership. It is bad enough that high performers are not being acknowledged or celebrated for their extraordinary effort, but under-performing staff members are allowed to wallow in mediocrity without the slightest rebuke or correction. And if you think nobody is noticing this lack of attention, you might want to reconsider. People notice, believe me!

Allowing our under-performers to fall short of our expectations without word or comment is not fair to either them or to the organization. Setting standards for performance and behavior is an important part of leadership.

There is no doubt that leadership in the federal sector is tough and comes with a lot of challenges. It also pays well and allows those in leadership roles to make a great living. 

Maybe it’s time to give leadership a try. I know your staff members would appreciate it.

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.