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Keeping Your Eye On the Prize

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
June 28, 2016

paddockIn these dark days of tragedy and tirades, it’s difficult to remain positive and focused on the job we are paid to do. When I worked with state and local managers in Wisconsin, I was always amazed at how managers kept their eyes on the goals and purposes despite political turmoil, budget and staff cutbacks and constant reorganizations.

When I asked them how they managed to remain dedicated public managers in the face of challenges, they had three answers.

First, they remembered their responsibilities to those they supervised. A discouraged or depressed workforce is less productive and, they admitted, much more difficult to lead. They believed a critical responsibility as managers was to be role models, demonstrating positive, affirming management.

Second, they remembered those they served. Homeless people, school children, building contractors—these groups, not to mention other public agencies with whom they worked, depended on services. It was the managers’ responsibility to find ways to deliver those services or, if necessary, to prioritize services.

Third, they remembered their own families and communities. Maintaining a positive outlook meant that they would not burden those they loved, and who loved them, with the negative experiences and emotions from work.

I was impressed by their focus on what they knew was important. But I also recognized that they were involved in “emotional labor,” which takes its toll.

According to The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling, emotional labor is “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display.” Emotional labor is “putting on an act” for clients/citizens and for fellow employees and managers, maintaining a veneer of professionalism. Keeping a “happy face,” however, actually increases anxiety and stress and can lead to burnout. At its worst, emotional labor leads to a manager losing sense of self or even to mental illness.

An alternative approach is affective leadership, as described by Newman, Guy and Mastracci who conclude that,

“The most important challenge facing public administrators is not to make work more efficient but to make it more humane and caring. Affective leadership, and recognition of the centrality of emotional labor therein, are the means by which this approach is championed.”

Research from Guy and Lee suggests affective leadership requires the ability to be emotionally intelligent. Managers who are not emotionally intelligent may experience burnout, with consequences for both work and personal life.

In the face of tragedy and tirades, then, effective managers are not simply positive. They also are aware of the consequence of what is happening politically, economically and socially. They are emotionally intelligent and not afraid to express anger, frustration, fear, sadness or other emotions arising out of circumstances. They are able to allow those who work for and with them to express emotions as well, and to help them work through those feelings.

They say, for example: “Yes, the budget cuts are significant and they will make our work more difficult. Let’s talk about how we are feeling. And, is there anything we are doing now that we can do more efficiently, or that we can stop doing?”

“These budget and staffing cuts will change what services we can provide. What services can we cut with the least impact on our clients?  How will we communicate with our clients about these cuts?”

“That news item was critical of us and our programs. Is the criticism warranted?  What can we do to address the criticism or the identified issues?”

“Acts of violence frighten all of us. How can we ensure our safety at work?  Are we doing everything to ensure the safety of our clients?”

The best example I encountered in my years of working with state managers occurred when new legislation threatened to move welfare services from county offices to private providers. Employees were appropriately concerned that they would lose their jobs and that the clients would be ill served. One county office manager addressed these concerns by assembling the team and leading them in developing a plan for the orderly transfer of services, if necessary, as well as a proposal for retaining the services at the county. The outcome was a workforce that felt more in control of its future and led to the office receiving the contract for services. The team continued to be positive throughout the process. Their response was not simply emotional labor, but also emotionally intelligent.

We can be sure that the next five months will bring more challenges to government services, some of our clients will feel disenfranchised or disregarded and public servants will be called upon to respond to complaints and criticisms. It is managers’ responsibility not to be constantly upbeat and positive, but rather to keep our eyes on the prize. To be honest and to remember that our job is to make public administration more humane and caring.


Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada. She is the former director of Certified Public Manager programs in Arizona and Wisconsin. Susan has published in the areas of leadership, organizational development and human resources and is an active student and researcher on what works in current or emerging organizational settings. Email [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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