Community Editorial: A Mandate for Change, Not Bullying

Italian Legislators Fighting (p)

Italian legislators fighting. (Photo credit: Washington Post.com)

Each election cycle, there are at least a few communities wherein voters embrace change at the ballot box by electing new local government leaders.

It is not hard to find examples of new slates and political coalitions ousting the majority rule of long-time incumbents — at city halls in particular.

First-time elected officials and those gaining the upper hand in elections through newly elected, like-minded colleagues are entitled to shake things up at their respective agencies. But while it’s reasonable to pursue new and different policies from the outgoing leadership, a mandate for change doesn’t entitle any elected official to intimidate public employees. Bullying staff, using the power of the office to threaten rank-and-file employees and berating managers in public whipping sessions is counterproductive.

Elected officials should take heed: You might be the boss for now, but you won’t get anything done without the help and support of your staff. Demonizing public employees might be good for a sound bite, but it’s an ineffective management approach.

Nor is it a sign of strength. Instead it makes leadership look small-minded and even weak.

True, there are genuine and frustrating cases of entrenched and obstinate government workers. These bad apples should be reprimanded through appropriate channels for clearly defined reasons or swiftly fired. However, most staff members are hard-working people who do not deserve to be kept on edge merely because their employer’s name is prefaced by “Honorable."

And if elected officials think they are sparing the rank-and-file staff from undue pressure by focusing their public venom on, for instance, the city manager, they are mistaken. Beating up on a high-ranking government manager is never done in isolation. Staff at all levels can feel this pressure and quickly jump to the conclusion that if their boss can be so easily belittled, they could be next.

Even if you despise public employees (for whatever reason), it’s foolish and shortsighted to instill fear among your employees. Public employees almost always outlast their elected management. More often than not, they’ve been at an agency for years, and they will likely remain long after the latest crop of elected officials retires from service due to term limits or the next ripple of voter sentiment. Remember, all they have to do is outlast you. While you have a reputation to develop based upon your accomplishments, that requires the participation of your staff.

Publicly criticizing staff at any level will only breed contempt and undermine their morale and productivity.

“When people don’t care about their jobs or their employers, they don’t show up consistently, they produce less, or their work quality suffers,” explain Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, co-authors of “The Progress Principle” and experts on employee morale.

If you need another reason to limit public outbursts or privately threatening staff, think about your role as a “fixer” for your constituents. Elected officials often find themselves in the role of helping constituents with specific problems. Elected official should embrace their staff, if for no other reason than to have the ability to effectively impact outcomes on behalf of their constituents.

Adam Probolsky is a member of the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board and Chairman and CEO of Newport Beach-based Probolsky Research, a public opinion and strategy firm serving government, business, association and media clients.

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