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A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

It’s Time to Erase ‘Seniority’ From the Management Lexicon

If there is one word that has outlived its usefulness in government management, it’s the word ‘seniority.’  Somehow it sends the message that performance is not important. In the administration of the General Schedule, seniority is the basis for step increases and plays a far too important role in promotions from GS-7 to GS-11. It’s also important, along with technical skills, in other promotions. When layoffs happen, civil service rules emphasize seniority and veteran’s status.

The new exception is a provision in the 2016 Defense authorization bill that makes performance the primary factor in Defense Department layoffs. That highlights another issue—the need for defensible performance ratings to support layoff decisions.

Employees approaching the end of their careers—or the date when they are eligible to retire—seem at times to be obsessed with tracking the days, weeks and months until they can quit. Well in advance of retirement their job focus begins to decline. No other sector pays as much attention to retirement. That has to change to enable agencies to minimize the loss of proven talent.  

I’m all for respecting one’s elders—I am one myself—but seniority concerns have considerably more influence...

Our Obsession With Mindfulness Is Based On Limited Scientific Evidence

Mindfulness practices are promoted at major corporations like Google, offered as psychotherapy via the National Health Service in the UK, taught to about 6,000 school children in London, and widely studied across sub-disciplines of psychological science. And yet there’s still not even a consistent scientific definition of “mindfulness.”

It gets worse. A paper published on Oct. 10 in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science argues that mindfulness research to date has been wrought by significant conceptual and methodological problems. For all the excitement about mindfulness meditation in contemporary culture, evidence of its benefits is limited. The field, the scientists who authored the paper say, needs a more systematic and rigorous approach.

Right now, mindfulness cultivation programs rely on poor scientific proof that compounds cultural confusion. As the authors note:

As mindfulness has increasingly pervaded every aspect of contemporary society, so have misunderstandings about what it is, whom it helps, and how it affects the mind and brain. At a practical level, the misinformation and propagation of poor research methodology can potentially lead to people being harmed, cheated, disappointed, and disaffected.

What are we talking about?

The solution begins with better definitions, according to the academics.

They themselves don...

The Cult of Productivity Has a Counterproductive Flaw

“I was productive.” Everyone has heard those words before, and everyone knows what they mean: “Today I answered a lot of emails, I wrote some reports, and I didn’t get interrupted by meetings or inane banter from my coworkers.”

This is the cult of individual productivity. It’s appealing in its simplicity: focus only on your solo tasks, log lots of hours, and good results will follow. It’s also unmitigated bullshit.

In the vast majority of companies, it is groups and teams, not individuals, that create the important output. The code written by a software developer is not a fully functioning product. The retail store manager doesn’t market, sell, and stock the shelves. As we create more and more complex things, it becomes increasingly difficult to produce anything meaningful as an individual unit. 

That’s why we’re in organizations: to do things together that we couldn’t do by ourselves. Outside the US and Europe, this is understood, although not necessarily explicitly rewarded.

In Japan, for example, you’re expected to eat lunch, and often dinner, with your coworkers. This is not viewed as wasting time. Rather, it’s viewed as a responsibility and investment in...

Is Your Agency Ready for New Evidence-Based Policy Tools?

The Commission on Evidence Based Policymaking, launched last year by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., recently released its recommendations. They include a call for federal departments to 1) establish chief evaluation officers to help coordinate and prioritize program evaluation activities; and 2) develop learning agendas that identify high-priority research studies that agencies would like to have done.

Both recommendations are designed to ensure departments’ evidence-building resources (whether program evaluations, basic analysis or research, or performance analyses) are used as productively as possible. The broader goal is to strengthen a culture of learning and improvement.

Will the commission’s recommendations be put into practice, either through statute or administrative action? Given the bipartisan nature of the recommendations and the high-profile backing of Ryan and Murray, it seems likely they will.   

That, then, raises another question: How can federal agencies prepare to increase their use of evidence, moving in the direction of chief evaluation officers and learning agendas? We have four suggestions for senior leaders.

1. See the commission’s recommendations as an opportunity to strengthen your organization’s focus on results

We know new congressional or White House mandates often seem onerous. However, the...

How to Beat Burnout at Work

If you want to understand just how bad burnout can get, consider the story of Melissa Sinclair, an employee at Time Out New York.

Melissa rose to internet fame in recent weeks after Time Out New York inadvertently posted an employment listing on the job-search site Indeed that detailed her current unmanageable workload. The post explains, “Currently, we have an agreed budget of $2,200 per issue for a freelance Photo Editor, 10 hours work at $22 p/h, which would normally be completely fine, however the issue is that Melissa physically cannot find good enough candidates to fill these freelance positions, and at the current rate of magazine production, she needs multiples people available to work on multiple cities, simultaneously. Because she can’t find people for these freelance positions, she’s been forced to do all of this work herself and is currently completely swamped and overwhelmed.”

Unfortunately, a lot of people reading the posting can probably relate. Fifty percent of Americans say they are constantly drained by work—a...