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Let Us Accept Our Own Responsibility

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

By Anna Marie Schuh
January 13, 2023

The new year typically brings renewed efforts to improve future behavior. Those efforts often relate to health and relationships with others. However, managers should think about using new year’s resolutions to improve the work environment. Regularly taking stock of current managerial behaviors and choosing to improve some of them is a useful exercise for all administrators. Below are five areas where well implemented managerial new year’s resolutions will improve the workplace.

Many managers need to work on problem solving and avoiding blaming. Reacting negatively to a problem is a typical human failing. Finding someone or something to blame is a common weakness. Unfortunately, these are behaviors that make employees fear being honest with management when problems occur. These behaviors also result in poor morale and delayed corrective action. Finally, blaming can make managers overlook or misdiagnose problems so the true cause is not found and the situation recurs. As a manager, I remember being told about a serious subordinate employee misstep by her supervisor. The mistake affected our organizational relationship with another federal agency and a congressional committee. Once informed of the problem, I told the subordinate supervisor to contact the agency and I contacted the committee to work out the situation. Once we resolved the incident, the subordinate supervisor commented that she was surprised that I had not blamed anyone and just went into problem solving mode. Responding this way earned me significant trust from my staff in future problem situations.

Clarity is an important managerial behavior. Clarity functions in three ways. First, clarity provides employees with information about organizational values. This instructs employees about the context in which they operate, and it enables employees to make decisions consistent with organizational context, particularly in unique situations. Second, clarity provides employees with specific expectations. This supports both the success of the individual employee and the overall organization because employees can successfully perform what the organization needs. Finally, clarity avoids employee frustration. For example, I once worked for a boss who would generally outline an assignment. However, once I completed the assignment, my former boss indicated that the result was not exactly what he had in mind. This was never done in a negative or demeaning manner. Still, redoing an assignment several times because I did not have clear instructions was frustrating.

An important element of a strong management style is modeling behavior. Human beings learn by imitating others. For example, most parents can recall incidents of unacceptable behavior by their children that merely copied the parent’s actions. With their behaviors and reactions, leaders identify for employees what is acceptable in the workplace. Employees instinctively watch their bosses to determine which behaviors receive rewards and which behaviors receive punishments. Organizations with toxic environments typically have toxic managers who model bad behavior. Successful managers model the behavior they want employees to emulate.

Respect is a key behavior that managers should include in their new year’s resolutions. Today’s employees expect respect, and they leave organizations when respect is missing. For example in a Pew Research Survey, 57 percent of employees who left their employment in 2021 cited lack of respect as a reason. In addition to reducing turnover, a respectful environment decreases friction and increases productivity. Respectful behaviors include active listening, valuing diversity, delegating important tasks and taking an interest in the non-work life of employees. Disrespectful behaviors include promise breaking, unrealistic expectations, being overly critical, micromanaging and not listening.

Transparency includes both openness and honesty. Transparency reinforces all the previously discussed behaviors. It allows employees to comfortably predict how the organization will handle problems. It ensures that all employees have clarity about organization values and issues. It demonstrates the respect that management has for employees by allowing employees to have their questions and concerns addressed truthfully. Transparent environments reduce employee fear because employees know what is expected and how the organization deals with problems. Transparent environments have better relationships with their employees because employees believe their opinions count and their voices carry weight. The visibility of organizational goals and objectives means that employees know what is important in the organization and can better support those goals and objectives. All the above benefits of transparency generally improve employee satisfaction, organizational reputation, employee retention and productivity.

President John F. Kennedy said “Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past – let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” Strong managers use President Kennedy’s perspective and regularly accept their responsibility to improve their organization’s future work environment. The beginning of a new year is a good time to do that by assessing current weaknesses and resolving to improve managerial skills.

Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an Associate Professor and the MPA Program Director at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last federal assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: profschuh.

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