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Performance Management in These Divided Times: The Responsibilities of Public Administrators

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

By Dennis T. Martino
June 9, 2017

“Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”- John F. Kennedy

opinionMost pundits would say we are living in a time when the nation is as politically divided as it could be. Our political parties also have divided factions. It appears to be shortsighted to believe our public workforce is any less divided over critical issues and values. In fact, because of the work we perform, the divide might even seem drastic.

How do we manage public agencies in these times when our workforce can be so vocal and perhaps combative about differences of opinions and values? Moreover, should we as administrators do anything? Should these efforts be any different than other interpersonal factors that affect the organization? Some good advice comes from a variety of sectors and perspectives.

Community organizers use a term for how to be preemptive with problematic issues. It is called “Inoculation.” Here is a definition from the American Federation of Teachers. “Inoculation is the articulation of … potential objections or the opposition’s most powerful arguments, provide an evidence-based refutation, and refocus the conversation to the union solution and the power of collective action.” In other words, tell people what to expect and when it happens they will be less upset by it. For organizers, this might mean letting them know if they are canvassing a neighborhood, they can expect a lot of doors to be slammed in their face. So, when it happens, they are not shocked.

In our public agencies, the Administration and top managers can be forthright with employees. For example, by saying, “The country is very divided. We are no different. If emotions run high, withdraw from the conversation. Although it is natural, arguing in the office is unacceptable.” So, there are several messages. One clarifies what will not be tolerated. The other acknowledges it might be difficult.

General best practices in delivering bad news to employees can offer some suggestions. In her article for Forbes Magazine, Anderson makes several great points about how to head off touchy subjects. She states you must listen. Their feelings are theirs. You cannot “talk them out of them.” She also states you must tell them what you will do next to make things better.

In our agencies that could mean the top managers acknowledge the feelings people have without making a judgment about those feelings. Follow up with the reasons why we are here. We are here to serve the public, and we do a disservice if we bicker.

Thousands of books and articles have been written on the general topic of conflict resolution at work. In a piece for CRHON.com offers three very simple pieces of advice. One method is to speak to people separately first. This allows them to vent in a safe way. It also gives the manager a chance to see if anything else is problematic. A group meeting can be planned once; the preliminary work has been done. In our public setting, this technique may not ever resolve the “conflict.” However, it might make people cool down a bit.

We can find advice everywhere for all of these issues. However, Knight states there are some concepts to consider when dealing with political ideology at work. One thing to let employees know as you coach them through these times is. “Show respect by validating either the content of the other person’s viewpoint or his right to have an opinion.” In other words, ask them to be polite and civil and not engage in a series of personal attacks.

All of these tips are helpful. They get to the “how” question. However, our greatest strength comes from who we are. This gets to the “why” questions. As public administrators, we are the guardians of the business of the people. We are assuring the citizens that here in the United States, the government might wax and wane when it comes to its size and missions, but it is always at the vanguard assuring the principles of the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions and local government guiding documents will be followed and protected. It is a duty we willingly take on.

So, maybe the best advice starts from within generally held beliefs:

  • We manage with the mission in mind.
  • We remind employees of the mission and its importance.
  • We treat people fairly and equitably.
  • We create a productive, safe and civil workplace.
  • We intervene when performance slips.
  • We coach before we criticize.
  • We solve problems by being proactive.
  • We model good behavior.

The fourth tenet of the ASPA Code of Ethics might sum up our responsibility to act. “Strengthen social equity. Treat all persons with fairness, justice, and equality and respect individual differences, rights, and freedoms. Promote affirmative action and other initiatives to reduce unfairness, injustice, and inequality in society.” Treating everyone with acceptance and kindness right now might be the best we can do.

Author: Dennis T. Martino, M.Ed, MS, CPM Dennis is the former Director of the NH Bureau of Education and Training, He is an adjunct faculty member at Granite State College and Springfield College. Prior to his current academic work, he had twenty-one years’ experience in Labor Relations as a union advocate and contract negotiator. Dennis has acted as a workplace mediator with both small and large agencies. He lives in Hopkinton NH with his wife Tracy.

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