Dear Bureaucrat,

My boss is always telling us about his core values for our office, and how one of them is innovation. But when I want to improve how we do something, he doesn’t support me. In fact, he has told me not to pursue a couple of ideas because he said he has long-term plans to solve those problems. (He’s not specific about the plans.) This is one reason I’m looking to switch jobs. How can I tell whether another boss would be more supportive? I can’t just ask “do you support innovation” because my current boss would say yes to that, and it’s not true.

Signed, Hedy Lamarr

Dear Hedy,

Sounds like your supervisor does not want your improvements stealing attention from his rhetoric. Research provides a clue on how to pick a next boss who does not just talk the talk.

Eran Vigoda-Gadot and Itai Beeri surveyed employees in a government medical center, asking if they agreed with statements about their supervisor’s leadership style. For example, if the employee agreed with, “My supervisor always gives positive feedback when I perform well,” that indicated the supervisor has a transactional leadership style. If the employee agreed with, “My supervisor articulates and generates enthusiasm for a shared vision and mission,” that indicated a transformational leadership style.

They also surveyed the supervisors, asking if they agreed with statements about each employee. Some of the statements indicated what Vigoda-Gadot and Beeri call change-oriented organizational citizenship; for example, the supervisors were asked whether each employee “tries to adopt improved procedures for doing the job” and whether the employee “tries to change the job process in order to be more effective.”

The researchers were surprised by their findings. One might expect “transformational leadership” to be better than “transactional leadership.” But supervisors who had a transactional style — that is, supervisors who reward employees for performance — reported more change-oriented organizational citizenship (innovation) by their employees. Supervisors who had a transformational leadership style — who try to motivate by instilling their values in employees and inspiring them — reported less change-oriented citizenship behavior by their employees.

Vigoda-Gadot and Beeri described some possible explanations for why supervisors who rewarded performance saw more innovation by their employees, but supervisors who tried to inspire and influence employees’ values saw less innovation. Here’s the explanation that I think applies to your current boss not supporting your innovation: If a supervisor is concerned with performance, then she will be happy with any change her employees come up with that improves performance. But if a supervisor is concerned with telling employees how they should think and feel about their jobs, so she can be a “transformational leader,” then innovation by her employees threatens her role.

When you consider switching to a new job, look for whether the boss focuses on performance or on inspiring her employees and instilling her values in them. If she is concerned with performance, then she will support your innovation if you show her it will improve performance. If she wants to be a “transformational leader,” then she is likely to see your independent thinking as competition.

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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