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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Good Managers Give Constructive Criticism — But Truly Masterful Leaders Offer Constructive Praise

Getting feedback from your coworkers is scary. A leader at one of my previous jobs once said that my emotional stability fell somewhere between that of a squalling infant and pubescent teen. (Cool, cool.) Now research shows that not only are most managers bad at giving constructive criticism—they’re even less likely to give constructive praise.

In two surveys conducted by leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman, each of nearly 8,000 managers, 44% of managers reported that they found it stressful and difficult to give negative feedback. One-fifth avoid the practice entirely. Even more surprisingly, nearly 40% of leaders conceded to never giving positive reinforcement, either.

That’s a big problem—both for employees and for their boss’s ability to manage them effectively. The study found that a boss’s willingness to give positive feedback was the strongest predictor of whether their direct reports perceive them to be effective, honest communicators. (Managers’ comfort giving negative feedback barely influenced this perception.) Ironically, managers who report regularly giving negative feedback were most likely to believe they gave “honest, straightforward feedback,” regardless of whether they also used positive reinforcement.

Most leaders “vastly underestimate the power and necessity of positive reinforcement,” Jack...

What VA Really Needs

Congress recently passed the bipartisan Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act after its last try at reforming the VA’s civil service system, the Choice Act, was deemed unconstitutional. This new effort appears not to violate the Constitution—a low threshold—but it also is unlikely to improve the quality of care veterans receive or even significantly improve management at VA.

Title I of the bill creates the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection to receive whistleblower disclosures, refer these disclosures to offices equipped to investigate them, such as the Office of Inspector General, receive allegations of misconduct and retaliation and make recommendations for discipline when allegations are substantiated.  

In other words, the new office would be another fox guarding the henhouse. While nothing in the bill seems to prohibit VA employees from making protected disclosures or complaints of whistleblower retaliation to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, it is not clear why a whistleblower experiencing retaliation would want to place the matter in the hands of the VA instead of an outside, independent agency like OSC, which has been dogged in protecting VA whistleblowers in recent years. OSC has also repeatedly voiced concerns about inadequate investigations into...

When Is a Leak Ethical?

Twenty-five-year-old Reality Leigh Winner remains in jail after a federal judge denied her bail in a case where she is alleged to have sent classified information to the media. Winner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

Winner’s prosecution comes at a time when the Trump administration has been faced with numerous leaks of sensitive information. The White House has stepped up efforts to identify leakers. And the Justice Department has also vowed to crack down on them. The Obama administration similarly took a hard line on leakers, prosecuting them more aggressively than any presidential administration in the last 40 years. Winner is the first person to be criminally charged for leaking by the current administration.

Undoubtedly, leaking classified information violates the law. For some individuals, such as lawyers, leaking unclassified but still confidential information may also violate the rules of professional conduct.

But when is it ethical to leak?

Public interest disclosures

I am a scholar of legal ethics who has studied ethical decision-making in the political sphere.

Research has found that people are willing to blow the whistle when they believe that their organization has engaged in “corrupt and illegal conduct.” They may also speak...

Telling Secrets is a Power Move

One of the enduring images from the saga of US president Donald Trump firing FBI director James Comey, as described by Benjamin Wallace-Wells writing for the New Yorker was Comey’s wordless departure from the event where he heard the news of his dismissal:

He made no public comments afterward, but news cameras tracked him as he rode in a car to the airport, got in a private jet, and then taxied down the runway, silent, holding secrets that even the President wanted to know.

Wallace-Wells called it the “look of power.”

That’s a look Trump has yet to master. Keeping secrets, unless they’re about his taxes and possibly damning personal information, is not his way. Instead, the president has repeatedly breached security protocols and revealed private information, most famously by bragging to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador Sergey Lavrov about his “great intel,” then sharing with Lavrov highly classified intelligence that Israel had given the US.

In April, during a phone call to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in which Trump said Duterte was doing “a great job” with his murderous war on drugs, Trump also spoke of two nuclear submarines the US has stationed in Asia...

The Trump Budget’s Assault on Federal Workers

A budget is supposed to reflect the president’s priorities and the values our country holds dear. Unfortunately, the budget President Trump recently sent to Congress shows how much disdain he has for federal employees and the taxpayers they help and support every day.

Civil servants perform countless tasks that assist, defend and protect Americans. They are saving lives, empowering small businesses, keeping America safe from harm, and otherwise ensuring a safe and prosperous future for our country, children and families. Many of our federal employees perform jobs that no one else can do, often in places no one else would work.

In early May, the president issued a proclamation declaring May 7-13 Public Service Recognition Week. He stated: “Throughout my first 100 days, I have seen the tremendous work civil servants do to fulfill our duty to the American people. At all levels of government, our public servants put our country and our people first.” 

The appreciation apparently was short-lived, however, as immediately thereafter President Trump released a budget request that punishes federal workers by making them pay much more for their pensions—an additional $5,000 for the average federal worker—while making those pensions much smaller.