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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.
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It Can Pay To Be Willing To Fail

How do you spur innovation in government? Be willing to fail. How do you make government willing to fail? Make failure cheap. That’s the idea behind Development Innovation Ventures, run by Maura O’Neill, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s chief innovation officer.

The program takes a venture capital approach to development, passing out grants to applicants with strong ideas but insisting they have plans to make their products and services sustainable.

If the projects go kaput, USAID isn’t out as much money as it would be with a conventional contract. If the projects show promise, the agency will have made a difference in people’s lives without a major investment or commitment.

“We’ve seen for-profit startups that have never been in development before but think maybe they can repurpose their invention,” she says. “We’ve seen people who have spent their entire lives in development but have never quite had the ability to come forward with what they believe are breakthrough ideas.”

DIV-funded initiatives have ranged from a low-cost, tampon-like balloon that stops post-childbirth hemorrhaging to a sticker on minibus windows urging passengers to report the driver for speeding.

“We think the government more...

Reining in Rage

Workplace anger is dangerous. It sometimes leads to violence, making homicide one of the top four causes of death in the workplace and causing 15,000 nonfatal injuries annually. But even when it doesn’t reach that level, workplace anger can affect employees’ health, happiness and performance if not dealt with quickly.

Jude Bijou, therapist and author of Attitude Reconstruction: A Blueprint for Building a Better Life (Riviera Press, 2011), has spent decades helping people view and manage their anger by encouraging them to see it as a physical state that can be remedied. Bijou writes that she has found unexpressed sadness, anger and fear to be at the root of all bad attitudes. By expelling these physical sensations from the body -- releasing that bad energy by sobbing, stomping, shivering, whatever is most effective -- people can create more positive attitudes.

This insight is helpful for managers in two respects. First, like everyone else, managers must learn to control their own anger. And the added responsibility and inevitable frustrations that come with being a supervisor can cause anger to build. Additionally, managers likely will benefit if they have a better understanding of employees’ attitudes. If a supervisor approaches a bad attitude...

What's Your Natural Leadership Style?

At some point in their education, most students are required to take the Myers-Briggs test, a psychological questionnaire designed to pinpoint personality types. The idea is to help teachers and counselors identify learning styles and possible career paths for their charges. Managers would be wise to embrace the idea that understanding your personality type—or your leadership style—can help you be more effective. 

One of the most respected lists of styles comes from the 2000 Harvard Business Review study “Leadership That Gets Results” by Daniel Goleman. The survey of more than 3,000 managers identified the following leadership styles and their benefits and weaknesses: 

Coercive: This manager demands immediate compliance, employing a “do what I say” approach. Goleman says this personality trait can be extremely effective in dealing with a crisis or a problem employee. In most situations, however, coercive leaders dampen motivation and stifle innovation and flexibility. 

Authoritative: This manager focuses on the ultimate goal, stating it clearly and urging employees to reach it, but allowing freedom to choose the means. An authoritative leader’s skill is to mobilize the team toward a desired result, which gives employees space to experiment and take calculated risks. This approach tends...

Lessons on Finding Fair Pay For Feds

Toward the end of his richly anecdotal book, Who Gets What, compensation expert Kenneth R. Feinberg observes that when considering the fairness of pay, “everybody counts other people’s money.” Money, of course, is a key signal of success in our market economy. And federal workers today are increasingly subjected to pay and job security comparisons by private sector workers who are worried about their own pay—or lack thereof.

Feinberg has been the mediator and paymaster in high-profile cases where demand has arisen for “fair compensation after tragedy and financial upheaval,” as his book’s subtitle notes. Who Gets What (PublicAffairs, 2012) recounts the author’s experiences stretching from the post-Vietnam Agent Orange case in the 1970s to the ongoing case of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. His experience bears testimony to people’s sensitivity about parity in compensation, and, perhaps, offers lessons for resolving the debate about appropriate pay for federal employees. 

Public compensation programs are very much in the news. In California, voters in two large cities recently approved cuts in public pensions. Republicans in Congress have made many attempts to enact extended pay freezes or reductions for federal workers. In a document released in September...

Tips on Talking to Your Employees

Being the boss is a double-edged sword. Immense pressure can come from knowing that you are responsible for harnessing your staff’s talents to produce results that will make your higher-ups happy. Conversely, you are armed with the knowledge that those below you want very much to make you happy. Your employees’ desire to meet your expectations is a powerful motivator and has the potential to keep your office running efficiently.

Before you can reap the rewards of a highly motivated group of employees, however, you have to communicate clearly what will make you happy. Employees have no hope of meeting your expectations if you don’t lay them out. And failing to do so will not only keep your team from performing, but likely will cause deep anxiety and frustration among employees.

While effectively communicating expectations is a fundamental skill for managers, many supervisors have not yet mastered it. In his book Communicating for Managerial Effectiveness: Problems, Strategies, Solutions, Phillip G. Clampitt reports that as many as 40 percent of employees are not satisfied with the communications from their supervisor.

He outlines managers’ tendencies to focus on how they deliver information. This “arrow approach” leads supervisors to speak clearly...