Dear Bureaucrat,

Two of the people I supervise seem to think they can pick and choose which decisions of our leadership they will carry out. They have argued with me a few times that work we were instructed to do was bad policy or bad management. I explained that those decisions are above my pay grade and above theirs. Sometimes it’s pretty clear they are slow-walking particular assignments they don’t agree with. What can I do as a leader to get them with the program?

Signed, Not William Bligh

Dear Not William,

Congratulations! Sounds like you have a couple of engaged employees who care about your agency’s mission. They just disagree that all the decisions from above serve that mission. You need to move beyond the “above our pay grade” argument to get their cooperation.

New research by Gary E. Hollibaugh Jr., Matthew R. Miles and Chad B. Newswander measured how powerful different factors are in government workers’ decisions to obey or rebel. They asked federal employees about hypothetical situations where somebody asked the employee to implement a policy. The situations varied in who asked them to implement the policy, whether the employee thought the policy was ethical, a good solution, or likely to harm people, and the risk of retribution if the employee did not do as asked. For each situation, the employee rated how likely they were to do what was asked or to rebel in some way: delay complying as long as possible, tell the person who asked them to implement the policy that it is wrong, tell a member of the press what happened, or leak information to an anonymous source like WikiLeaks.

The “above my pay grade” argument worked to some extent. Respondents were about 10 percentage points more likely to say they would comply if it was their immediate supervisor or an agency appointee who asked them to implement the policy, compared to a coworker asking. When the hypothetical request was from the president of the United States, they were even more likely to say they would comply. (The research was during the current presidential administration.)

Risk of punishment had almost no effect on whether employees said they would carry out the policy. Although as Hollibaugh, Miles and Newswander point out, employees might give more weight to the risk of punishment in a real-world situation than when they answer hypothetical questions.

The most powerful predictor of whether employees said they would comply or rebel was how they felt about the policy they were asked to implement: Did they think it was a good solution to the problem? Did it agree with their personal ethics? Was it likely to harm people? Employees were 17 percentage points less likely to say they would obey if they viewed the policy as “the worst” solution to the problem, compared to “the best.”

Based on this research, I think your best chance of reducing rebellion by your employees is to persuade them that what you are asking them to do is not evil or senseless. When they come to you to complain, that is an opportunity to learn their concerns and address them as best you can. The good news is that you do not need to convince them that the policy you want them to carry out is the best solution to the problem. Hollibaugh, Miles and Newswander found no statistically significant difference between employees’ likelihood to say they would obey if they viewed the policy as merely “appropriate” rather than “the best.” If you cannot explain why the policy you are implementing is at least “appropriate,” then maybe you should consider joining the rebellion.

Dear Bureaucrat provides the federal workforce with the opportunity 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.

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