The drive for economy and efficiency in government operations never ceases, especially when operational budgets don’t grow like entitlements or grants budgets. So its up to leadership to foster a culture of ever-better productivity. Most don’t to such a great job. Says who? Federal Drive with Tom Teminspoke to Bob Tobias, a long-time federal leadership professor, coach, and general smart guy.
Tom Temin And this idea of culture change so that we can do more with less, that seems to preoccupy federal managers, federal purported leaders a lot. And you’ve got some thoughts on that.
Bob Tobias I do. Tom, thanks. And I’m hearing more and more agency leaders who are saying we’re going to initiate a culture change to increase agency productivity. And they’re saying that because it looks over the next few years that budgets are not going to keep going up. They’re going to flatten out and maybe even decline. But what these leaders don’t say but I think often believe they say, well, I’m very productive. And if everybody else would change their behavior to be as productive as me, things would be great around here. And those of us in long term relationships often think if our partner would change, everything would be great around here. And we find out quickly that blaming the other is never a path to effective problem solving. And the same is true, I believe in the workplace. So if leaders are unwilling to change their behavior and model the behavior that they seek, I think organization change is extremely unlikely.
Tom Temin Well, culture is a hard thing to get at. You hear people in every conference and every panel discussion say, well, it’s a matter of culture. You know, we have the technology, we have the this, we have the that. We need to change culture. And I’m not sure exactly what culture is. I guess it’s the sum of people’s expectations for behavior towards one another, towards how they work and so on. How can you change culture? What should a leader model say for the idea of getting more productivity, for example?
Bob Tobias Well, the normal approach to increasing productivity is for a leader to hold an all hands meeting, identify the need for more productivity, create the burning platform, appoint a group of high level officials to study the problem. And of course, they select a consultant who introduces them to steps they must follow to increase productivity. And then another all hands meeting. Six months or eight months later, new goals are created and there is little or no discussion about the behavior that would need to change to achieve those goals. So many leaders at that point think they’ve done their work, and I suggest that’s where they need to start. And as you suggest, organizational culture means the sum total of the behavior everybody exhibits toward each other in the organization. And if the organization needs to change, I think it has to start at the top, not me as a leader saying I’m perfect and all you change and we’ll be great. And we also know, Tom, that as adults, we don’t like to change our culture. And all we have to do is see the TV ads of the smokers sucking oxygen saying, Don’t be like me. And yet people continue to smoke even though we see that horror on the TV. So we get comfortable with how we behave and we don’t want to change.
Tom Temin We’re speaking with Bob Tobias. He’s a former federal union president and retired American University professor of federal executive leadership. Well, let’s put this into the context of, say, the return to the office gambit that has been going on. And the administration, some members of Congress want more federal employees in their offices more of the time. Yet the leadership, for the most part, the managerial class in federal agencies, they are going to the office. And there’s this reluctance of maybe the rank and file because they feel they are productive being teleworkers. And so there you have modeling of the behavior that’s wanted. I’m going to the office yet people are pushing back. How do you address that one?
Bob Tobias Well, I think that the rationale for asking people to come back to the office doesn’t exist because agencies have shown over time, particularly during COVID, but post-COVID, that productivity remains level and or is increasing. So if I’m the leader and I’m at work and I say you ought to come back to increase productivity, nonsense, show me the numbers. So I think that’s where modeling the behavior you see without a convincing rationale is where the rub is.
Tom Temin In other words, I could model the behavior of walking across hot coals and expecting people to follow me there. But there’s never a really good rationale for walking across hot coals.
Bob Tobias Show me the boots before I walk across the hot coals.
Tom Temin And getting back to the productivity question, I mean, you can measure that in a lot of ways in, you know, contracting, for example. Well, how many contracts did you do? But maybe there needs to be on the part of management a deeper look at really the metrics and what’s important, because often if you need more output, more metric changes in this area, maybe you could just abandon some of the stuff that has been done by habit for so many years. We do that because we do that and people could buy into the new metric if some stuff was heaved overboard that’s burdening them.
Bob Tobias Well, that’s true. So in the arena of productivity, really what’s needed is behavior change in how people relate to each other, how inclusive they are, how collaborative they are, how well they listen to each other. Now, those are all habits of a culture. And if the leader doesn’t change her or his behavior to exhibit those kinds of behaviors, it won’t happen. So if they don’t say this is really the kind of behavior and behave collaboratively, no one is going to do the change behavior work necessary to increase productivity.
Tom Temin Can you think of a time that you saw that work in a positive way?
Bob Tobias Yeah, many times. I saw it work in a positive way when I was president of NTEU, particularly during the Clinton years, when there was a lot of support for including employees as part of the problem solving process. And it’s occurred sporadically ever since, but never to the extent where it could really be energizing and having a dramatic impact on increases in productivity, because the people who do the work know what the problems are. And when you include them and they say, Well, I have a stake in this process now because it’s my idea that’s being implemented. When that happens, Tom, productivity increases.