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Despite lower pay, how can successful leaders change culture in government?

Recent reports show that morale is low across the nation for government employees. Are there answers that can help even as public sector pay lags behind the private sector? Here's an example to consider.


Credit: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

 As I was surfing the web on the morning of December 9, two very different blogs ambushed my thoughts. One piece delivered very negative news, while the other offered career hope and good news for government employees. The stark contrast is worth considering.

First, I was skimming breach headlines about the impact of the Sony breach in the Washington Post, when all of a sudden, another opinion piece grabbed my attention. Here’s that blog and a few excerpts:

Federal workers’ morale is at lowest point in years -

 It's yet another year of low morale and dwindling workplace satisfaction in government agencies. The annual "Best Places to Work" rankings, released Tuesday by the Partnership for Public Service, show that federal employees' satisfaction and commitment are at their lowest point ever since the analysis began, in 2003….

 "There has been a failure of leadership," says Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service….

No doubt, that article is pretty depressing for federal employees. And yet, I’ve heard similar sentiments from state and local government employees around the country over the past few years.

My thoughts immediately went back to life during a decade of budget cuts in Michigan State Government following September 11, 2001. I remember numerous staff meetings in which management struggled with employee morale issues during a period of shrinking benefits, furlough days and pay freezes.  Recently, employee cutbacks were even worse in Detroit.

You’re probably thinking - OK, I get it. Tell me about the second, more uplifting, piece....

So as I was glancing at updates from colleagues on LinkedIn a few minutes later, I saw an intriguing blog written by Phil Manfredi from Arizona State Government called: Changing the Culture in a Government Agency. Here’s an excerpt:

It was my first day on the job and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had only worked in the private sector. I was used to free coffee, snack bars, bright colors, new technology, cool chairs, and even the occasional Nerf gun attack. And the people I worked with were amazingly talented.

But I was about to walk in as the number two guy in a government technology division made up of 175 total strangers. Everything I had heard about working in the public sector was negative. The people are lazy and are just waiting for retirement. The systems are archaic and there is no innovation. It's so bureaucratic you'll never make a difference. And the workplace? Forget about it. It’s government. Everything is brown and nobody talks to each other….

To quickly summarize, Phil’s initial experience was very different than expected, with the people who were “intelligent and devoted” but creativity and energy were largely untapped.  

Now, fast forward to where his team ended up after sustained positive leadership and dramatic culture change, and you can see why I was so encouraged:

…We still pay for our own coffee and water. We do a pot luck for our employee award ceremony. We pay out-of-pocket for working lunches. And as a public sector organization, we should. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have an energetic culture and an inspiring, highly functional place to work. I am proud to say we have created that for our current and future employees.

Why Encourage Culture Change Driven by Leaders?

You may be thinking, “Is culture change really that important? Why should I focus on that in 2015?”

As Mr. Manfredi points out in his blog, Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Phil Cooke recently added that “culture also trumps vision.”

There are many, many great books and articles on the importance of this topic, and one excellent summary comes from Michael Hyatt.  He points out that culture change requires leaders to be intentional and consistent in their actions for culture change to take hold over time.

This past September I was invited to participate in a CIO Solutions Gallery at Ohio State University, led by Thornton May. I described my interactions with public and private sector IT leaders in this blog. The importance of enabling culture change was one of my main take-away items from that interactive two day workshop.

One common theme that ran throughout each presentation was the vital role of IT leadership in changing the company culture to achieve positive outcomes. We are faced with challenges regarding people, process and technology, but the most important aspects to address involve motivating our teams to accomplish great things. In fact, everyone agreed that over 80% of our modern challenges revolve around people issues.

Solutions Please!

Once you are convinced that culture change is needed, how do you make it happen?

One way is to become equipped with toolsets offered by organizations like the Partnership for Public Service. Their leadership development work:

…Prepares federal leaders to deliver results by building strong teams, creating a culture of innovation and working across boundaries. Mirroring the best, most effective practices across sectors, our leadership programs provide a combination of coursework, collaborative projects, executive and team coaching, as well as site visits to some of our nation’s most respected organizations….

The IBM Center for The Business of Government described six trends driving change in government. One of those trends is new thinking by leadership. “...Successful government leaders must go beyond established parameters and institutional strictures, working across organiza­tional boundaries in pursuit of multilayered, networked approaches tailored to a spe­cific challenge. We invite you to read the complete report.”

I also like this article by Larry Fast which describes what organizational leaders can do to facilitate cultural change. (His approach is for both the public and private sectors). Larry says that the #1 thing that leaders can do is lead from the front. Setting a good example is paramount. Here is the list of seven items Mr. Fast mentions:

1)      The most important thing senior leaders must do is lead from the front.

2)      All leaders must constantly communicate the vision for excellence, the process for getting there and the sense of urgency necessary by all.

3)      The CEO (or top agency executive) must elevate expectations of all leadership.

4)      Eliminate the non-believers, i.e. those unwilling or unable to change the way they think and work.

5)      To think and work differently requires a different mindset and toolset.

6)      Everyone in a leadership position must be trained how to think and behave differently.

7)      There is no better tool to keep the entire company, regardless of function, focused on the important process improvements in the business than this: Create aligned metrics top to bottom.

As for security and technology leaders who are trying to change their organization’s culture of security, I posted this blog with tips on LinkedIn which addresses the cultural change challenges related to current insider threats.

That series of three blogs begins to answer the tough question: Are you for us or against us? There are positive steps that management can take.

Fostering Autonomy, Master and Purpose at Work

Another helpful resource comes from this excellent YouTube video which shows (via global research) how pay and other financial rewards are really not the major motivator to improve performance. The three biggest factors turn out to be autonomy, mastery and purpose.

As someone who work for the federal government for 5+ years and state government for 17+ years, I always felt that sense of purpose in my work.

Government roles certainly can offer the potential for greater societal purpose and mastery of skills. Many government employees feel like they are making a real difference in the world and truly enjoy their work – often even more than those in the private sector.

Still, as the video shows, leadership must take intentional steps to create the environment that enables autonomy, mastery and purpose to emerge.

There is no doubt that culture change is very hard – and especially hard in governments right now. If it wasn’t such a difficult issue, more leaders would be successful in achieving the necessary steps to build a great work culture in government over many years.

Final Thoughts

Nevertheless, there are many government success stories like Phil Manfredi’s in Arizona that we need to highlight. Our needed cultural changes at work always start with committed leaders (at every level of an organization) who are willing to make a difference, take risks and rise above the status quo – despite major obstacles like pay.

One of my favorite motivational quotes came from John Wooden: “The most powerful leadership tool you have is your own personal example.”

Thank you Phil Manfredi for sharing your example.


Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.