I’ve been doing the same job for three years, and I’ve learned how to keep everything running smoothly so no problems reach the higher-ups. If it wasn’t for me, there would be some train wrecks that would look bad for our agency. But my boss doesn’t appreciate me. I get basically the same treatment as everybody else who isn’t a problem employee. Meanwhile, the people who work on senior executives’ pet projects get awards, first pick of travel and training, etc., even though they’re not accomplishing much. How can I get the recognition I deserve?
Signed, Ms. Cellophane
You’re right, employees who work on the pet projects of the most powerful people in an organization are treated better.
One reason is that their efforts are more visible to the people who decide who gets what. Another reason is that senior officials are disproportionately concerned with their signature projects, compared to the regular work of the organization. Their egos and their future job prospects depend on whether the projects they are personally identified with are seen as successful. So they lavish the organization’s resources on their pet projects, including bonuses and other recognition to recruit, retain and motivate the people working on them. The official also benefits from a “halo effect” — by rewarding employees who work on the pet project, the official helps spread the story that the project is successful and important.
One strategy for getting more recognition is to get involved in a senior official’s pet project. But even if you can insinuate yourself into one, you might not be able to get released from your current responsibilities, so your total workload would be heavier. Another strategy is to make the work you already do more visible and important to senior officials. When a project is viewed as successful, then officials support giving it additional resources.
For example, an experiment by Nielsen and Baekgaard found that telling officials a program had above-average performance made them more likely to support increased spending for it. So you can try to show your senior officials that your work is a success. Create metrics that show off how much you do (such as number of transactions you processed last quarter), how well you do it (such as measures of speed and accuracy), and what it accomplished for the organization (cost savings, etc.). If your organization already has a periodic report of metrics (and what organization doesn’t?) then try to get yours included. Otherwise, report your metrics yourself, sending them to your boss and anybody else in the organization who could be interested. When you are armed with metrics demonstrating your success, opportunities will arise in meetings or informal conversations to quote them, further raising the visibility of your work.
You might also try to get your work recognized outside your agency, such as in interagency groups or the trade press. Senior officials are exquisitely sensitive to publicity, so if your work is discussed favorably outside your organization, that might make it more important to your own management. But there is risk in this strategy. If you prompt outside discussion of your work, it might not all be favorable. And even favorable coverage might anger an official who fears you are challenging her control over external communication or stealing the spotlight from her.
You say you do your job so well that no problems reach the higher-ups. That doesn’t help you. If the powerful people in your organization are not aware of the problems you prevent, they will assume your job is easy or unimportant.
As I said above, Nielsen and Baekgaard found that telling officials a program had above-average performance made them more likely to support increased spending for it. But they also found that telling officials a program had below-average performance made them more likely to support increased spending. It was the programs that officials were told had average performance, or the programs for which they were not given any performance information, that they were willing to cut funding for, to give more to the above- average and below-average performers.
Officials want to back a winner, to claim credit for its success, but they also prioritize resources for stopping visible failures they would be blamed for. So make your agency’s officials aware of the problems you are preventing that would make them look bad.
For example, if you are your agency’s widget control coordinator, then you could forward a news story about the head of another agency being grilled by a congressional committee for failures in widget control, and assure your higher-ups that your agency is safe from such a scandal thanks to what you do. And although it is counter-intuitive, consider letting a little crap hit the fan. Instead of quietly heading off all problems without your officials becoming aware of them, give them a heads-up about a potential train wreck, get them worrying about what the consequences would be for them, and then solve the problem and let them know everything is OK. Don’t do this so often that you become the girl who cried wolf, or raise doubts about your ability to handle the problems, but enough to make the higher-ups aware of what you are saving them from.
In short, if you want recognition at work, then you need to show the people in power that you are doing things they care about.
Dear Bureaucrat is a new feature on Federal Times, providing advice for people who work in the public sector and the opportunity for the federal workforce to submit questions about their careers to David S. Reed, founder of the Center for Public Administrators, a 501(c)(3) civil society organization that builds communities of practice in the public sector. Reed has spent 35 years in and around government. He has worked for large contractors, owned a small contractor, and is currently a government employee. He holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and is a frequent speaker at public administration conferences.
Send your question to DearBureaucrat@PubAdmin.org.