Bouncing Back from Set-Backs
Getting things done in government is hard. Really hard. Funding gets canceled. Executives do not welcome new ideas from subordinates. Excessively detailed bureaucratic rules limit our range of options. The need for inter-agency collaboration greatly increases the complexity of many tasks. It’s difficult to fire ineffective employees. The list goes on and on.
To make matters worse, sequestration, wage freezes, and the government shutdown have left many public servants frustrated, bitter, and feeling unappreciated. Some government employees argue that there are so many factors making it difficult to achieve positive outcomes that those who really want to make a difference inevitably get jaded and cynical.
Despite all these negative factors, I refuse to believe that cynicism is inevitable for government employees and managers. And we all need to guard against it.
The Impact of Cynicism
Cynics often try to justify their negativity by claiming that they “used to care too much” but were disappointed too many times. They usually describe themselves as “realists,” and some even wear their cynicism like a badge of honor. The problem is that once you decide that it is impossible to get anything meaningful done, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t–you are right.”
Who is going to put their heart into something big that they already “know” is going to fail? And who is going to follow a manager or executive who talks that way? Cynicism is a form of learned helplessness that keeps you down–and drags others down with you. And its impact is magnified greatly if the cynicism is coming from the boss.
So how do we guard against burning out or becoming jaded and cynical?
We have all experienced set-backs and disappointments. When it has happened to me, picking myself up, learning from the experience and then trying to find some new way forward has been absolutely critical. Is that difficult? Gosh yes. But I am unwilling to give up hope and I am unwilling to stop trying.
Set-backs are key turning points, and how we respond can determine whether we derail or grow and flourish as leaders. In his superb book Leadership and the Art of Struggle, Steve Snyder describes the most common kinds of struggles and set-backs and provides examples of leaders who came through the experience stronger. He includes several reflective exercises to help leaders remain grounded and make adjustments as required.
Another excellent resource is the book Resilience at Work: How to Succeed No Matter What Life Throws at You, by Salvatore Maddi and Deborah Khoshaba. It includes a wealth of case studies and simple exercises that can help anyone learn the thought processes that foster resilience.
The recognition that it is frustrating and difficult to get things done in government was one of the things that prompted me to create GovLeaders.org in 2002. It is essential that government managers cultivate the patience, self-awareness, and perseverance required to weather the frustrations they will inevitably face. My favorite part of the site is the "Stories" section, which features many inspiring stories of public sector leaders who succeeded in bringing about positive change.
In “Tips for Change Agents,” I discuss a variety of strategies for persevering over the long haul. Many of them are very helpful in developing resilience, such as:
- Being clear about your long-term objective;
- Taking ownership of the challenges your organization faces (i.e. choosing to lead);
- Developing a network;
- Finding opportunities for small wins;
- Keeping a fresh perspective so you never stop asking “Why?”;
- Being creative about tactics when you hit an obstacle; and
- Maintaining your optimism.
We need leaders in government who have the resilience to bounce back—repeatedly–in the face of disappointments and set-backs. We must truly believe that our teams can make a difference. And we must create a positive work environment where our employees feel connected to the mission, are learning and growing, and believe that their ideas matter.
None of this is easy. But when we do these things we have a much greater chance of achieving positive outcomes for the American people.