By Ann Boehm, June 16, 2021

This article was inspired by a newsletter subscriber who read my article last month. I explained that during my very first Federal sector labor relations job, the workforce was evenly divided on who wanted to be represented by the union and who did not. I further explained that the division broke down based upon the leadership skills of the employees’ supervisors.

The reader focused on my conclusion that “[t]he supervisors who were effective leaders tended to have employees who opposed the union, and the supervisors who were not effective leaders tended to have employees who supported the union.” And she asked this question: “Do you think that effective leader supervisors are the key pro-employee element?”

The answer is an overwhelming “yes.” The tricky part is trying to make sure that Federal supervisors are effective leaders. So my goal for this and next month’s article is to expound on the effective leadership aspect of Federal employee and labor relations.

Pretty much anybody who has ever had a boss has had a lousy one. I had more than a few really lousy ones. The problem with those bad bosses is they rarely know they are bad. They are the ones at leadership training classes who think they are doing everything right already.

My quest is to ensure that supervisors are aware of what makes a good leader. I also want to try and make supervisors do an accurate assessment of themselves and their leadership styles.

I’m highlighting some effective leadership and organizational goals that date from my husband’s Army unit way back in 1991. It just so happens one of his colleagues from 1991 recently stumbled across a piece of paper that highlighted their Battalion’s Command Focus, and he sent it to us. The Lieutenant Colonel who drafted the document retired as a Lieutenant General. He was a great leader. And what he wrote then is useful to anyone in leadership.

Here are the highlights:

Focus on the fundamentals. Believe in the basics. Don’t make it too hard.         

Sounds easy enough, right? But how often do supervisors make things too hard? They add busy work. They micromanage. They often lose the forest by looking at individual trees and forget the fundamental organizational mission. Bottom line: Keep things simple.

Leaders live the standards. Establish, explain, enforce. Consistency in discipline and [employee] care. Mold and forge a team. Invest in leader training.

Let’s start with that first one. “Leaders live the standards.” If you expect your employees to work hard, you need to work hard. If you expect employees to go the extra mile, you need to go the extra mile.

Then there’s “Establish, explain, enforce.” “Establish” what you need from your employees to support the mission of your office and agency. But don’t expect employees to be mind readers. “Explain” what you need them to do to support that office mission. And “enforce” that by holding employees accountable for performance.

What about “consistency in discipline and [employee] care”? Does that mean you have to treat every employee the same?  That’s not how I read it. I think it means you have to discipline employees who engage in misconduct. You can’t ignore it. And you have to take care of your employees. It’s not really about treating everyone exactly the same in discipline and performance matters. It’s about consistently holding everyone to the same high standards to ensure effective service on behalf of the American public.

If you focus on those first three things, then it should be easy to “mold and forge a team.” As we regularly teach here at FELTG, supervising is an interactive process. You have to communicate with your employees. Inspire them to want to fulfill the requirements of the job. Make it easy for people to come to work every day. Help them enjoy their jobs. So often that happens when employees feel part of a team.  It’s called “employee engagement.”

Key to all of this is “invest in leader training.” FELTG offers leadership classes. Many agencies have their own leadership training programs. Often, leader training can be on-the-job training. But as I stated earlier, the key to leader training is for supervisors to be honest in their assessments of their own leadership skills. It’s also important for leaders up the chain of command to do honest assessments of the leaders below them. They need to pay attention to union activity; EEO complaints; grievances; frequent turnover. There are plenty of very bad supervisors who are very good at convincing those above them that they are the best. Everyone in leadership needs to honestly assess the work environment. Anonymous 360 evaluations are essential to this process.

Do the right thing for the right reason.

The key to this concept is the last part – “the right reason.” It is possible to do the right thing but for the wrong reason. One example of that would be a supervisor ensuring employees are mission focused so that the supervisor can get his/her/their next promotion, not because it is the right thing to do. So how can supervisors do the right thing for the right reason? The best way is to focus on the four characteristics of great leaders:  integrity, accountability, humility, and empathy. If a leader has an employee discipline problem, they should have the integrity to not sweep it under the rug simply because it may make them uncomfortable to confront the employee. They should have the accountability to hold not only their employees but their supervisors responsible for executing the standard. They should have the humility to always seek self-improvement through leadership training and 360 degree evaluations. Finally, they should have the empathy to understand what is going on in their employees’ lives. This builds a bond between supervisor and employee and dramatically increases “employee engagement.”

So there you have some outstanding guidance on leadership from a proven leader.

I want to leave you with one of my favorite tidbits on leadership from the professional sports world. I’ve used this before in articles and in training, but I love it, so I’m using it again.  I found this in a Washington Post article on Davey Martinez, now the longest-tenured manager for the Washington Nationals. “Things change, but Dave Martinez remains the even-keeled beating heart of the Nats,” by Chelsea James, Washington Post (October 24, 2019). The article appeared right before the Nationals started their successful World Series run. Here’s what the article said about Martinez:  “He doesn’t berate players. He doesn’t play mind games. He lets veterans lead how they see fit. He stays positive. He smiles. He cares.”

Works for me. It’s completely consistent with the guidance above.

Supervisors, make it your goal to ensure you are an effective leader. You will reduce your employee and labor relations problems. Stay tuned for next month’s article where I pose some questions to see if you are the great leader you think you are. [email protected]

Scott Boehm contributed to this article.

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