What can an organization do when it's best employees disengage?
February 2, 2014 6:28 PM   Subscribe

I work for a large government agency where the "management cadre" is separate from the "professional cadre." Top- level professionals make as much or more than managers, at least up to the middle levels. More and more people are deciding to stay in their professional or "field" jobs, so managers are now coming from outside, with little substantive experience, and get overwhelmed almost immediately. When they founder, as is more often the case, there are few ambitious people under them looking for an opportunity to shine by taking on extra responsibilities, so they just keep chewing up the scenery. The fact that it is next to impossible to fire anyone at any level for any reason means there is little incentive for anyone to change, and the crappy economy means nobody wants to let go of a good salary, not to mention a great pension. Lather, rinse, repeat. Have you ever been part of this dynamic, and if so, how did you handle it? Have you ever seen an organization dig itself out once the situation got to that point? What constructive actions can the professionals in this scenario take, short of taking on responsibilities that don't belong to them ( and that they don't have the authority to carry out anyway)?

Full disclosure: I am closer to the professionals in this scenario than management, although I do run a small team. Luckily, we are project-oriented, and so protected from the worst of it by very clear goals and reporting lines. However, I am worried about what is going to happen when--and if-- I want or need to leave my little pond. From what I see when I am forced t look out, the agency is starting to bear the hallmarks of a "sick system."
posted by rpfields to Work & Money (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you have a situation with clear goals and reporting lines, stay in it as long as you can. Do your best professional work, and help your team do the same. Focus on those clear goals. Try to stay out of the "corporate" BS as much as possible, but don't badmouth those who can't, and if you can't ignore them, try to stay at least blandly positive about whatever initiatives come from upstairs. In other words, model good professional behavior and make sure you're not spreading negativity.

I have seen such situations turn around, but it takes time, and often a complete change in leadership and organizational culture. In government, that sometimes means an election.
posted by navizzar at 11:18 PM on February 2, 2014

I'm afraid the reason that you haven't gotten many answers is because there really isn't a good answer here for someone at your level. Cleaning up this bad situation would be a case of "taking on responsibilities that don't belong to them (and that they don't have the authority to carry out anyway)".

The best things you can do are, as navizzar says, stay professional yourself, avoid negativity, and focus on goals instead of politics, but unfortunately you aren't in a position to fix this and it is almost definitely going to stress you out and make your personal situation worse if you try to make it your responsibility.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:36 AM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks both, I guess I knew the answer, but was hoping there might be some magical solution out there. It is really hard watching the motivation and energy drain out of so many formerly dedicated people. Bureaucracy really does force you not to care.
posted by rpfields at 12:23 PM on February 3, 2014

If you know anyone who is leaving govtl work and who knows an influential senator/congressman*....who they trust not to politicise the issue**, perhaps you can get them to send a version of this question, naming names, to said representative?

* Unlikely
** Super unlikey

posted by lalochezia at 6:13 PM on February 3, 2014

I think it's a bad premise. You don't get individual people to step up and take on additional responsibilities. Especially ones they don't have the authority to carry out. And especially ones other people don't have, but get paid the same. It sounds to me like you have classic symptoms of management too far down in the weeds.

We just went through this here. (Also a federal gov. entity)
We started by looking at the actual position descriptions of everybody. Everybody.

Turns out decades of micromanagement had somehow turned what the GS-13s routinely did into a bunch of 10 or 12 work, if you read the position descriptions. 12s were doing 10 work. 5-10 kind of ended up lumped together as a all-the-same, "just tell me what to do" no-responsibility/authority mess. GS-14s and 15s were overwhelmed.

We fixed it by educating everyone what their PD required. What we expected was a bunch of GS-10s to be disgruntled that they had to take extra responsibility. (and we did have some, but not many)

But what we mostly found instead (for the most part), was that the GS-10s were more than happy to be the mentors and leaders of the lower grades, and the helpers of the upper grades. Nobody had ever let them DO IT. When people try to help, but don't have the authority to make any decisions without the manager overriding them, guess what happens? They let the manager run the show and just collect the paycheck.

It's the managers that are going to be the obstacle, not the pro staff. Hands off everyone else's work. Make them do it, and LET them do it. It works.

And if your PDs don't reflect that more senior professional staff should start acting more like managers of their AOR, then that's where to attack this.
posted by ctmf at 8:42 AM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

And I'd find it very hard to believe that even professional staff could get graded by OPM at 10, 11, 12, 13 without having significant supervisory responsibilities in the PD. Run properly, you don't advance in grade just by getting older.
posted by ctmf at 9:14 AM on February 4, 2014

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