Zinke galvanizes employee opposition

One thing every boss learns: You’ve got no throw-away lines. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ought to know this. He never made it to the top ranks in the Navy, but high enough to know a few things. That’s partly why his comment that 30 percent of the Interior Department staff are disloyal is so … puzzling.

He’s quoted as saying to a gathering of petroleum executives, “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.” He said he knew this when he joined the department in March.

Aside from whether this was a wise thing to say, it’s not clear what he meant. Are a third of Interior employees in favor of overthrowing the government? Do they not go along with the administration? Do they resist orders? Are they never-Trumpers?

The man who rode to his first day at Interior on a horse has managed to plant his cowboy-booted foot squarely into a pile of fresh horse apples.

Here’s what I think is going on. Zinke’s trying to change Interior’s approach to one of its main missions, managing public land. The law and regulatory framework leave a lot of latitude. Zinke also appears to be in a hurry. He summarily transferred so many career executives, he sparked an inspector general investigation. Early on, he recommended reducing the size of the Bears Ears National Monument, as proclaimed under the Obama administration. He wants to accelerate consideration of federal land drilling applications.

It’s likely some Interior employees disagree with the policy drift. But that hardly makes them disloyal to the flag.

Even though he’s within his rights, Zinke needs to make his case. Federal employees understand they are obligated to carry out administration policy. They also know they’re obligated to act within the law and within the norms of sound administrative procedure. But they’re not simply squadrons of drones who change direction at a flick of the switch. They’re people with brains and hearts.

Effective bosses understand policy change takes convincing, listening and consideration of alternatives. It’s messy. In corporations or military organizations, leaders may have more forcing leverage. But civilian agencies are among the toughest places to change. Bosses can’t change the basic mission. They don’t have the luxury of summary mass dismissals. Congress has a big say. Regulated groups and their opposition all crowd in with their views. They marshal the press to weigh in.

You won’t find “dismiss a third of the staff as disloyal” in management textbooks. If you want to convince the skeptical, you have to acknowledge their views, explain the motivation behind yours, and convince people of your pure motives.

I’m not a fan of public mea culpas and rehearsed apologies that have become so fashionable. But Zinke has a lot of employees who feel stung. He’s gotta say something to them.

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