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How to Keep Your Agency Out of the Headlines


"Motivation is everything. You can do the work of two people, but you can't be two people. Instead, you must inspire your people and get them to inspire their people."—Lee Iacocca

The Veteran Affairs Department is the latest federal agency to make headlines for abysmal performance. But Congress' rush to fire VA officials because of fraudulent waiting times at veterans hospitals and the White House's promises of accountability are like a broken record. We heard the same script after the IRS tea party affair, the Health and Human Services Department’s debacle, the State Department Benghazi massacre, Justice's investigation of journalists, and the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Operation Fast and Furious—just to name a few. According to the Partnership for Public Service, just 46 percent of government civilian employees "feel a high level of respect for their leaders." So VA isn't a Shinseki problem, it's a leadership issue at the presidential level and in Congress—arguably the organization least accountable for performance.

Do similar incidents happen in your organization?

Crisis of leadership. You can spot a leadership crisis by listening to those in positions of power. While there is no one-size-fits-all leadership style, the tell-tale sign of dysfunctional leadership is that followers fail to perform ethically and deliver top results. Leadership isn't a speech or lecture—leaders don't talk at people. Leadership isn't about the leader—it's about the results their people produce. Many of today's leaders, often those in politics, are enamored with ideological rhetoric and forget that their job is to solve problems not jump on the bandwagon to chastise workers.

Building people up. Good leaders build people up, not tear them down. At one time or another, most of us have had a boss who made us feel like garbage. He was so immersed in his own thinking that he smothered ours. We had difficulty learning because he kept telling us what to do. While we were motivated to work hard at the start, when our ideas were ignored we had to resist the urge to give up and mentally clock out. On the other hand, effective leaders build people up by melding their individual ideas and skills into a cohesive team.

Leading by example. We learned leadership by watching those who lead us. Usually the lessons were constructive and we copied traits that we admired. Other bosses taught us how not to lead, and sometimes the line between the two was blurred. How do you tell if your leadership impact is positive or negative? Here are a few signs that your style is working:

  • People use your logic when they explain things to their people
  • People choose to work for you and decline other opportunities
  • People say success came from what they learned from you

Similarly, the following indicate that your leadership style may be having a negative impact:

  • Your people stop their conversation when you approach
  • Your people avoid delicate and controversial subjects
  • Your turnover rate is higher than average

Leaders don't tell people what to do, rather they help people identify and remove impediments to progress. By asking the right questions, you encourage learning by your team and often learn a lot yourself.

Dealing with dysfunctional behavior. Few things erode productivity faster than dysfunctional behavior. If missed commitments, finger-pointing, whining, and the like are normal among your co-workers, you must change the environment. Just don't allow it. Anytime you see or hear one of those behaviors, stamp it out. Privately tell the troublemaker that his or her behavior is damaging the team and is unacceptable. If the behavior occurs during a meeting, ask repeat offenders to leave. You'll be amazed how quickly such rebuffs will change a group's behavior. That doesn't mean you should squash complaints—quite the contrary. But there is a constructive way and a destructive way to address poor performance. Making oneself look good by making others look bad is destructive. Offering new ideas to improve results or correct poor performance is constructive.

Your leadership impact. As a leader, you impact people in three dimensions:

  • Intellectually by guiding the possibilities and priorities they consider
  • Behaviorally by drawing and consistently enforcing the line between acceptable and unacceptable actions
  • Emotionally by helping people feel positive about themselves and the organization

The first two—how a leader sets direction and acts as a role model—get a lot of attention. But in addition, be conscious of how you make people feel. Do you empower or drain them? Of the three dimensions, emotional impact is most essential to leadership because if you frustrate, annoy or anger people, your ideas are unlikely to be adopted and others won't change their behaviors no matter how right you are. In other words, if you don't influence people emotionally they won't follow you. How are your people feeling right now, for example?

Dick Stieglitz is a business consultant, author and speaker who works with companies and government agencies to change the way they do business. His books include Taming the Dragons of Change. This post first appeared in his newsletter The Change Challenge.

(Image via mearicon/

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