Dickens’ classic novel may not seem to be related to the federal government, but the conflicting view in that opening sentence reminds me of the distinctly different views groups of people in the same agency may have.
Understanding those differences is crucial to any transformation effort, particularly if what we are trying to change is the culture of the agency. If we do not know where the starting point is, how do we know how to get to our desired end state?
This problem is compounded in culture discussions because agencies are not monoliths with a common set of issues, values and norms. They are most often collections of sub-organizations, teams and groups that have different perspectives on the agency, its mission and its problems.
Sometimes the differences are based upon traditional perspectives such as headquarters and field — others may be based upon project assignments, geographic locations or type of work. Some of those groups may believe they work in the best place in the government, while others believe they are overworked, under appreciated and working in one of the worst places in government.
Those divisions can be particularly acute when they involve the views of senior leaders vs. rank-and- file employees.
Employee surveys often reveal that employees at the highest levels of agencies (such as GS-15 and SES) have different perceptions of the workplace than those of employees at lower grades. That fact should not come as surprise to anyone who looks at the working conditions for senior employees versus those of the majority of the work force.
Much of my career was in the Department of Defense. Here is a quick look at how my work life changed when I moved up through the ranks from GS-5 to SES.
Arrive at work and park in a reserved parking spot close to door.
Go to office suite, saying good morning to my Deputy, my Deputy’s Secretary, my Secretary and my Executive Assistant.
Enter my private office.
Participate in meetings I have arranged or am scheduled for, with reminders from staff if I am running behind.
Based on those meetings, maintain a good understanding of the key issues the agency is facing.
Make or participate in making decisions about the future of the agency.
Based on DoD custom, staff members stand when the senior SES, General or Admiral enters the room (I asked my staff to stop doing that).
Arrive at work, park far from the building and hike to the door.
Go to my 6×8 foot fabric-covered box, walking past my coworkers in their fabric-covered boxes.
Participate in meetings I am told to participate in, get chewed out if I am running late.
Learn about issues and decisions after the fact and when my boss or someone else in the agency communicates with the staff.
Stand when an SES, General or Admiral enters the room.
Get work assigned to me and have my work reviewed by several people.
Would the two people in these circumstances have different views of the agency? Of course they would.
Having a team of people to support you, a great office and being fully informed all the time can make for a great workplace. Some of the negatives include having to deal with Congressional staff and members, working directly with political appointees who may have a short term view of the world and taking the heat when the agency has problems.
My view of the world from that perspective was very different from my view when I was at a lower grade, working in a cubicle and not having ready access to information. Even with the headaches that come with senior positions, they can offer a rewarding work experience.
If an agency wants to address culture issues, it has to recognize that differently situated people have different views of the agency and require different solutions. It is essential for senior leaders to recognize that, even with the challenges their work presents, their view of the organization is likely to be affected by their conditions of employment.
I have to admit I have gotten a frosty reception when I have expressed that view to SES and General and Flag officer colleagues in the past. Some of them did not want to hear that we had two agencies, and that what may be the best of agencies for some was a different experience for others. Because they lived in a different version of the agency, they questioned survey results that told us parts of the agency were hurting.
Some differences are inherent in the types of work done by people who are individual contributors and those who lead an agency. Senior leaders will obviously be better informed about decisions, because they are making them. The breadth of their responsibilities also necessitates a staff to support them.
Other distinctions are not so necessary. Reserved parking is not a necessity, nor is standing when someone senior enters a room (unless it is the President). Workplaces can be designed so employees are not working in cubicles. Information can be shared and decision-making processes can be more transparent and have more employee involvement.
Anyone who embarks on a culture change initiative needs to take a hard look at this issue and the other subcultures that exist in most agencies. By doing so, they will get a better understanding of their own workforce and their needs and have a better chance of success with changes they attempt to make.
A Tale of Two Cities and thousands more public domain books are available free from Project Gutenberg.
Thanks to Andrew Krzmarzick for the idea for this post.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.