These are tough times for public servants. With the nation awash in debt, federal employees are branded as ineffective and inefficient. Floating around Washington, D.C., are proposals to extend the current two-year pay freeze to five years, increase employee retirement contributions, slash the federal workforce by 10 percent, and use furloughs and buyouts to manage cuts in agency budgets. Draconian, some say. Entirely possible, most admit.
What should federal managers do? There is much advice on what to do, but little counsel on how to do it.
For example, a September 2011 Partnership for Public Service report advises managers to adjust to this new (or 1990s old) era by avoiding “across the board cuts” or thoughtless “personnel reductions” while communicating a larger vision employees and key stakeholders can embrace. It then outlines recommendations, including federal agencies should contemplate the long-term consequences of cuts, while systematically reexamining missions and functions and creating innovative and empowering environments.
In the face of so much uncertainty leaders are wondering, “How do I produce game-changing innovation and empower those I lead while both they and I are frightened? How do I create engagement in a federal workplace that is constantly stressed to do more with less?”
We believe the answer is authentic leadership. The federal workplace needs manager-employee teams who are fully engaged at every level to maximize their contribution to agency goals. Authentic leaders have the best shot at creating this engagement.
What Is Authentic Leadership?
Charles Rossotti became commissioner of the IRS in 1997 when the agency was being attacked for over-aggressive enforcement efforts and a failed $4 billion information technology reform effort. There, he found disorganization and a dispirited workforce that faced reductions in force and furloughs and a significant $900 million (9.8 percent) reduction in congressional appropriations.
When he left in 2002, Rossotti had successfully reorganized the IRS from a geographically based to a functionally based organization. Though that affected every IRS job, not a grievance was filed. In addition, he put the IRS on a track to complete information technology reforms. Moreover, he reestablished a positive relationship with Congress that led to a 40 percent funding increase for the IRS.
Rossotti was able to synthesize chaos into a coherent plan and historic accomplishment because of his authenticity: he hid nothing from IRS employees. He was totally transparent about the need for change, while at the same time making clear he did not have a specific plan. He promised to include managers and employees through their union in every step of the decision-making process—and then he kept his promise.
He was not an observer. He was an active and involved participant. He exemplified the traits of an authentic leader: listening, curious, totally transparent, and advocating, acting, and ultimately deciding in a way that was consistent with espoused values.
As the Rossotti story illustrates, authentic leaders succeed in challenging times. Their ability to connect with self and those they lead generates increased accountability and transparency, and thus more engagement by those they lead. Together, these pave the way for improved innovation, excellence, and all around better performing organizations. The data support the story.
According to the Partnership’s 2011 report, Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, since 2002, the primary driver for increased employee engagement in every organizational segment is effective leadership. Since 2009, this includes the role of senior leaders. The impacts of “effective leadership,” by-products of authentic engagement, include employees’
- elevated respect for senior leaders
- increased satisfaction with the information provided by senior leaders
- improved perceptions of senior leaders’ honesty, integrity, and ability to motivate employees.
In September 2008, the Merit Systems Protection Board released a study based on a survey of nearly 37,000 employees working in 24 federal agencies. The study compared engagement scores with achievement scores on the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) to understand the relationship, if any.
Their work was revealing: the agencies with the five highest engagement scores averaged a 65 out of 100 on the results/accountability section of the PART, while the agencies with the five lowest engagement scores received a 37.
Higher engagement levels don’t just increase organizational results. The study also found that effectively led, highly engaged workforces are less likely to retire early, use sick days, or file EEO complaints. Moreover, they use less accident time compared to their disengaged peers.
Discretionary energy may sound like a term of budgeting or physics, but it is not. It is the energy dedicated to achieving organizational results that must be voluntarily given and not extracted. As Karl Albrecht writes in The Power of Minds at Work (2002), it is
“The amount of energy the members of the organization contribute over and above the level they have ‘contracted’ to provide ... the willingness to contribute something more than expected, because they identify their success with the success of the enterprise and because they want it to succeed.”
Research tells us that the following factors unlock an individual worker’s willingness to use discretionary energy:
- the opportunity to be involved in something larger than myself
- a clear link of my work to the core mission
- clear goals
- a supportive supervisor
- a collaborative team that is flexible and creative
- all team members are accountable for results
- the team is totally transparent with each other.
Thanks to common sense and the scholarship of Peter Northouse’s Leadership: Theory and Practice (2006), Jim Kouzes’ and Barry Posner’s Leadership Challenge (2002), and Bill George’s Authentic Leadership (2003), we know the link between these factors: authentic engagement.
When you ask people about authenticity, they know it’s valuable. But the definition is as elusive as one justice gave about obscenity: we know it when we see it.
When we experience inauthenticity, we withdraw, and when we experience authenticity, we engage.
We confirmed as much when discussing the topic with current and former managers at the Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Personnel Management, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the IRS.
In one interview, a current senior agency leader states, “Authenticity is core to a leader’s ability to do more with less.” In another, a former senior agency leader declares, “Authenticity is self confidence without being arrogant.” In still another, a highly decorated former senior human resources chief states, “Authenticity is essential to building trust … it is key to leading through networks.”
For a more detailed breakdown of the elements of authentic leadership, we turn to Northouse’s Leadership. There, Northouse explains authentic leadership as a discipline characterized by self-awareness, internalized moral perspective, balanced processing, and relational transparency.
- Self-awareness. If we know who we are, we can remove any barriers between us and those we lead. We don’t need a mask to protect ourselves. As Patrick Lencioni states in Five Dysfunctions of a Team (2002), “People who aren’t afraid to admit the truth about themselves are not going to engage in the kind of political behavior that wastes everyone’s time and energy, and more important, makes the accomplishment of results an unlikely scenario.”
- Internalized moral perspective. We are authentic leaders because our behavior is consistent with our espoused values. Those we lead feel a sense of betrayal when our behavior is inconsistent with what we say we are going to do.
- Balanced processing. We are able to objectively evaluate information and are non- judgmental as we consider the perspective of others.
- Relational transparency. We are willing to explain our motives, admit when we’re confused, ask for help and advice, and seek to understand the impact we have on others. This we believe will create the authentic engagement that leads to better, more quickly implemented decisions.
Looking Inward to Lead Forward
Let’s turn to the business of how I as a leader fully motivate and innovate. Here are the actions I might take to challenge self and those I lead to be authentic:
- continue to discover who I am to remove the barriers between me and those I lead
- create a collaborative work environment where those I lead participate in the creation of and regularly tap into the collective genius for better results
- create an infrastructure of trust anchored by clarity on the background, facts, and desired outputs and outcomes
- manage my predilection to jump into solving problems and accomplishing tasks before I have created an infrastructure of trust
- take time to be pro-active rather than reactive in the interest of faster implementation (avoid shackling the creative to the reactive)
- model the behavior I seek
- commit to my own relational transparency to unlock the motives and inclinations of direct reports and key stakeholders—all of which may drive or undercut endeavors.
We know when others lack authenticity and how this drives us away. We know that we are not willing to give our discretionary energy to accomplish our boss’s objectives in the absence of authenticity. The question for us is, “Why should we work to be authentic?”
Authenticity and Austerity Connect
One might view this discussion as esoteric, or as one interviewed senior agency leader calls it, “airy fairy.” Some might even think that challenging public servants to be more authentic is not the kind of change we should focus on, certainly not now.
However, unlocking the discretionary energy of the anxious federal sector workforce is critical to doing more with less and can be accomplished only through a commitment to authentic leadership. But we also believe that it is not possible to direct all leaders henceforth to be authentic. We must create an environment where leaders are challenged and supported as they change.
Practitioners and academics increasingly focus on what is called “positive organizational scholarship,” where the “empowered followers empower leaders.” We have experienced a shift of command styles in organizations to what Joseph Nye calls “the co-optive era” (The Powers to Lead, 2008). One known scholar practitioner of this school is Robert Quinn at the University of Michigan. There, he mines hard data directly linking authenticity and success in environments of doing “more with less.” (See Quinn’s video, An Invitation to Excellence: Positive Organizing and the Generative Practices of Extraordinary People, at www.centerforpos.org/the-center/activities/events/positive-links-speaker-series/past-positive-links-sessions
The Evidence That Authenticity Matters
Quinn’s ongoing project studies teachers because they are often not highly valued leaders; their clients are uncooperative and unqualified; and their context is hierarchical and broken, punishes excellence, and is politically charged. Sound familiar?
Quinn posits that if we can determine the “generative practices” of the top 1 percent extraordinary teachers, those who excel in “more with less” environments, we can scale this learning in academia and in other contexts and working conditions.
While Quinn is still early in his research, his data so far shows that those who succeed in these challenging environments are self-leaders who
- consistently seek authenticity
- continuously explore
- are intimate with self and others
- model the behavior they seek in others.
These are tough times for public managers. Budgets are under siege and the people we lead are anxious. We yearn for authentic engagement.
If we view success in this tough era to include a stronger, better government, through innovation or networks, more accountability or smart cuts, or even shrewd leveraging of the lessons of the 1990s budget battles, we believe all such work is founded on a highly engaged workforce. This, as we’ve outlined, is most often created, certainly sustained, by authentic leaders.
In an October 2011 New York Times editorial, “Where Are the Jobs?” David Brooks points out that wishing for change is not enough:
“[T]he roots of great innovation are never just in the technology. They are always in the wider historical context. They require new ways of seeing. As Einstein put it, ‘The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.’ If you want to be the next Steve Jobs and end the innovation stagnation, maybe you should start in hip-hop.”
As Einstein and Brooks highlight, and we discuss, significant problems are solved through different thinking and doing. Maximizing a creative and innovative public sector environment demands authentic engagement at its core. The challenge to change is clear. The question is, “Are we up to the challenge?”
Robert M. Tobias is the director of the Key Executive Leadership Programs and the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation at American University, and the former president of the National Treasury Employees Union. Contact him at email@example.com.
Damon Taylor is special assistant to the director of the Key Executive Leadership Programs. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information: Best Places to Work in the Federal Government in 2011, Partnership for Public Service (2011).