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To change government's culture, recruit leaders, not loners

Nov. 13, 2011 - 06:00AM   |  
By STEVEN L. KATZ   |   Comments

Garrison Keillor, host of "A Prairie Home Companion" radio program, connects with a sold-out crowd when he travels to Wolf Trap park near Washington. Among his roles on the show is the unofficial father confessor for the National Association of Shy Persons, whose members teem in the federal government.

Government is not simply a magnet for shy people. Government, in particular, attracts, rewards and promotes people who want to be left alone. As a result, we have a government of loners. These include many expert, diligent employees. Managers who feel the need to navigate around the agendas of political appointees use the culture of being left alone as cover. Unfortunately, a government of loners also harbors bad managers, the people who no one can figure out how they got or keep their jobs but they skillfully deflect scrutiny.

The risks created by a government of loners are primarily seen in the scarcity of people with a healthy balance of substantive and social skills who are needed for leadership, management and bringing projects large and small to completion.

Such individuals, as identified by author Peggy Klaus in her book "The Hard Truth About Soft Skills," are "the best performing ones and possess significantly higher levels of self-awareness, self-management capability, social skills and organizational savvy."

In government this would include the kinds of people we need today who can communicate up and down the food chain; talk and collaborate with one another at all levels within and across agencies; deal effectively with citizens; and simultaneously manage both the mission and change and be accountable.

How many executives and managers do you know who demonstrate such traits and skills? How many are heading for the exits due to retirement or downsizing? What do the people in the promotion pipeline look like?

Perpetuating a government of loners is problematic among three visible groups of employees:

Specialists who are promoted because they are next in line or have developed recognition and relationships through their work.

Headquarters and regional employees who must learn to work more collaboratively because downsizing and office closings have created gaps where there used to be experienced senior people known as "the glue."

"Millennials" whose dominant form of communication and relationships is online and on cellphones, not face to face.

To begin changing the culture of government, we must consciously begin changing the blend of people and personalities in government. The spectrum of personality types on tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Identity provides some idea of the differences.

Many people who populate government will be recognized in the thumbnail description for the Myers-Briggs "ISTJ" which stands for Introverted Sensing Thinking Judging.

Quiet and serious, such people earn success by being thorough and dependable. They are practical, matter-of-fact, realistic and responsible. They decide logically what should be done and work toward it steadily, regardless of distractions. They take pleasure in making everything orderly and organized their work, their home, their life and value traditions and loyalty.

However, consider whether your agency needs more people who test in the range of the Myers-Briggs "ENTJ" Extroverted Intuitive Thinking Judging. They are frank and decisive and assume leadership readily. They quickly see illogical and inefficient procedures and policies, and develop and implement solutions. They enjoy long-term planning and goal setting. Usually well-informed and well-read, they enjoy expanding their knowledge and passing it on to others. And they are forceful in presenting their ideas.

There are people in government, and others who wish to enter government, who see leadership and effective management as their way to make a difference. We need to do more to find such people, continue to train and improve their skills to lead and manage government, and break the cycle of a government of loners.

We cannot be shy about changing the culture of government.

Steven L. Katz worked in the executive branch and is author of "Lion Taming: Working Successfully with Leaders, Bosses, and other Tough Customers."

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