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

Be Not Afraid

A problem federal employee became even more of a problem when he decided to start intimidating two co-workers. He was a big guy who had gotten into trouble at work in the past. He started staring at two female colleagues in a threatening way because they had complained about him.

It wasn't a good situation. But what could his supervisors do? This was the federal government after all. How could they take disciplinary action against someone for looking at his co-workers the wrong way?

Luckily for the two women, upper management didn't agree. Instead of doing nothing, they proposed a bold move -- fire the employee -- even though they weren't sure of the outcome in the notoriously bureaucratic federal appeals process. It turned out that the bully wasn't so tough. Surprised by the strong management response, the employee begged for his job and promised to stop staring. Management eventually gave him a temporary job at another office.

Former federal manager Stewart Liff includes this tale, along with many other battle stories from the trenches of the civil service, in his new book, Managing Government Employees: How to Motivate Your People, Deal With Difficult Issues and Achieve Tangible Results (Amacom, 2007).

Drawing on more than 30 years' experience in federal agencies from the General Services Administration to the Veterans Affairs Department, Liff encourages government bosses not to believe the prevailing wisdom that managing in the public sector is impossible. Federal managers too often are governed by fear, and Liff is out to help them conquer it.

"Fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," Liff warns when discussing how managers can deal with problem employees like the staring bully. "If supervisors and managers understood that the system provides plenty of protections for management, as well as employees, they would begin to see things in a different light."

Liff explains that he frequently encountered other managers who believed taking steps to improve their organizations -- including confronting problem employees -- was futile. But when managers feel powerless, they cede control of their workplaces. Troublemakers indeed will make their offices dysfunctional, working conditions will deteriorate and good employees will become frustrated.

Instead, Liff encourages managers to seize control. That starts with a clear and consistent philosophy. "Employees closely watch their managers because they are continuously looking for clues as to what they believe and for indications as to what they will do in the future," Liff writes. "The employees all talk to each other on a regular basis and share notes, so they all form opinions about their managers' beliefs."

Liff's philosophy holds that most people want to do a good job and want to be part of a winning organization and all people should be treated with respect. He suggests setting up management systems to provide incentives for good behavior and performance. And he urges managers to stick with those systems consistently to create a culture of excellence. It's common-sense stuff, Liff says. But it's often ignored, and fear is the key reason.

One way managers can strengthen their backbones is to remember that people generally respond more positively to aggressive actions than to inaction. Liff recalls a supervisor who was reluctant to counsel an employee trainer who was too tough on trainees. Liff had the supervisor tell the trainer to stop being abusive or face the consequences. To the supervisor's surprise, the trainer said no one had ever told her that she had been doing anything wrong, and that she couldn't afford to lose her job.

"From that day on, she was a much better employee," Liff says, "because management had finally dealt with her."


Brian Friel is founder of One Nation Analytics, an independent research, analytics and consulting firm for the federal market.

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