By Dan Gephart, February 11, 2020FELTG Instructor Dr. Anthony Marchese

The third page of the Partnership for Public Service report released last week explicitly hinged the federal workforce’s future success on agencies’ ability to do four things:

  • Collaborate internally.
  • Work closely together with other agencies.
  • Engage the public.
  • Establish connections with stakeholders from outside government.

Unfortunately, as the Partnership’s report makes clear, those are not four areas where the federal government has a particularly strong track record.

“That’s a tall order,” said Dr. Anthony Marchese (pictured above), the author of DESIGN: An Owner’s Manual for Learning, Living, and Leading with Purpose, as he read through the report’s four recommendations.

Dr. Marchese teaches FELTG’s Leadership Training Courses. That includes the course Connecting, Collaborating, and Creating: Mastering the Art of Meaningful Relationships, which, in light of the Partnership’s report, should probably be mandatory training for all supervisors and managers. [Note: All of FELTG’s Leadership Training Courses align with the Office of Personnel Management’s Executive Core Qualifications.]

“The biggest barrier to collaboration is the absence of trust,” Marchese said. “Healthy collaboration occurs when people work together with others to achieve a common purpose or shared goal. If trust is compromised, communication/information will be limited, people will possess a level of competitive antagonism toward others across the agency which results in battles over who receives credit for successes, fighting over scarce resources, inactive listening, and the reinforcement of existing organizational silos. Leaders who focus first on how to build trust (interpersonal – among employees and supervisors and interdepartmental – across the agency) will drastically increase the likelihood of collaboration.”

If collaboration is the largest boulder holding us back, then communication is the large boulder the size of a small boulder. It’s particularly challenging for supervisors.

“A recent Harvard study revealed that two-thirds of managers are uncomfortable talking with their staff,” Marchese said. “The discomfort wasn’t over having difficult conversations, leading performance reviews, or convincing an employee to stay. Managers simply reported being uncomfortable communicating in general.”

DG: Is that why so many federal supervisors struggle to hold their poor performers accountable?

AM: Both the federal and private sectors often promote great technical experts to supervisory roles without demonstrating key behaviors that are necessary for success. Leading conversations with employees is one of the most important activities of the supervisor. Even those of us with many years of experience may feel uncomfortable having a conversation with a poor performer. But, with thoughtful preparation, there is much that can be done to increase the likelihood of a positive outcome. Two things come to mind.

First, structured conversations lead to better conversations. The second thing is that as supervisors, we need to better understand how people can change behavior or grow their expertise. It is a lot easier to tell someone, “Change X – or else” versus helping to set this poor performer up for success by understanding and using the tools of the “Performance Paradigm.” People learn differently, people are motivated differently, people require different types of reinforcement and accountability.

DG: The country is divided these days, and that divisiveness often causes problems in the workplace. What advice would you give to someone who is leading people with wildly divergent opinions and beliefs?

AM: If I had a choice between a team of like-minded members versus one filled with vastly different types of individuals, I would choose the diverse team every time. A team with “wildly divergent opinions and beliefs” requires more time and patience to lead but with a thoughtful strategy, the outcomes can be incredibly impressive. Think about a team meeting in which the leader has charged the team with the task of solving a complex problem. The team with like-minded members will frame the challenge as well as the course of action quite similarly. The meeting will produce a predictable outcome.

On the other hand, a diverse team will probably have a spirited discussion with multiple perspectives, some healthy debate, and quite possibly, reach a remarkable outcome. Leaders who find themselves leading a diverse team should seek agreement on core outcomes/results, what we call “The What,” also the easiest part. Then create a member-centric strategy that focuses on “The How.” This is where most teams fail. Consider the following:

  • Openly discuss and celebrate team differences and explore implications for synergy and conflict.
  • Create “rules of engagement” for working with different members (behavioral styles, strengths, personalities).
  • Build Safety: Encourage members to speak up, actively listen, not go silent, and avoid multitasking (phones/laptops).
  • Check-in periodically: How are we working together? What is working well? Not so well? What needs to change? Remind the group of the core outcomes/results that everyone is after.
  • Conduct an end-of-project debrief. Celebrate your accomplishments and retrace the process that got you there. What did we learn from this experience?

DG: What’s the one skill keeping most managers from being effective leaders?

AM: Without any reservation, the leading skill most supervisors lack is the ability to navigate and engage a diverse workforce. There is significant evidence indicating that three-quarters of those with whom we work are different from ourselves. They process information differently. They frame success differently. They communicate and collaborate differently. They respond to conflict differently. Different isn’t better or worse. It’s just different. Unless a leader is skilled at understanding and engaging her own behavioral style and those of her employees, there is a strong likelihood that a tremendous amount of time will be spent using a trial/error approach to learning how to work together. This causes frustration, wastes time and resources, and even encourages early exits. Leaders need to know their people.

DG: An employee has just been promoted and will now be supervising her former coworkers. What advice would give you her as she prepares for her first day leading her former colleagues?

AM: First, breathe. You don’t have to have everything figured out on day one. Making the transition from individual contributor to successful supervisor takes time. The biggest pressure most new supervisors feel is self-induced. As you stand in front of the mirror, ready to head out to your first day, pause for a moment and smile. You can “do anything” but you can’t “do everything.” Your first day might feel a bit awkward. Your coworkers may be feeling the same thing, They might be asking themselves, “How is she going to act now that she is a manager?” “Will we still be friends?” “How are things going to change?” Here are some suggestions to help you have a great first day:

  • Be yourself: While your office may have moved locations, your relationships still exist as they did yesterday. Talk to people. Be visible. Keep your door open.
  • Listen: People are going to be curious about how things are going to change. As they inquire, let them know that you are going to spend a few weeks asking questions, getting to know the agency and its priorities, and even talking to a mentor. You want to do your homework first. Let your coworkers know that you are open to ideas.
  • Read Boundaries for Leaders: Results, Relationships, and Being Ridiculously in Charge by Henry Cloud. As you read the book, conduct a self assessment. Where are your areas of strength? In what areas might you be vulnerable?
  • Organize your observations/priorities. You will start to notice new things, even on Day One. Use your phone, tablet, or laptop to keep a running list of ideas. Think about organizing your thoughts into three categories: Leading Myself, Leading My Team, Leading the Agency. At the end of the week (or two), talk with your own manager about what you observed and establish priorities for the year.
  • Breathe.

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