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July 14, 2008
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The Fear of Excellence

This is a most serious recommendation to my many colleagues in different phases of their careers in public administration. The message is: Never fear working with people who perform and behave with excellence. Isn’t that self evident? Why should it even be brought up? 

The reason: There is a significant segment of people in all walks of life who feel threatened by working with someone who is outstanding at what they do.

Finding a job you love in a career field you love is a wonderful and critically important variable to living a happy and successful life. Imagine being sentenced to life in prison inside a job that you find boring and dispiriting.

Imagine that, for whatever reason, you feel trapped — by economics, little self confidence, fear of failure or any other reasons that prevent you from ever seeking out or taking a risk. 

Perhaps you are a consummate bureaucrat who is at home in a room whose walls are constructed of the piles of past versions of rule and regulation handbooks. Perhaps you are the master or mistress of the past history of these rules and are able to cite chapter and verse to cover almost any event in the life of the organization. It can be disconcerting to imagine a world in which the rules change, or other people know them better than you do.

It is comforting, on the other hand, to sit in your office and be approached by a stream of colleagues who need your interpretations of the rules or signature on some form, perhaps created years earlier by you, in order for their assignments in the organization to be successfully fulfilled.

This scenario can be true in any government agency, but especially those involved in licensure, such as building and permitting departments or internal administration. The HR Doctor recalls being on a conference program with the president of a national government purchasing organization who introduced his presentation by saying “I’m from Purchasing. My job is to pour epoxy into the wheels of government so they will run smoother!”

Human Resources, in a civil service environment, is also notorious for creating rules and insisting that they be applied even if the original purpose and value of the rule has long since been forgotten. 

In today’s environment, however, the likely top winner of the “most bureaucratic” annual competition is not purchasing, HR, or even Payroll or OSHA. It is the health care agency. It is increasingly full of forms and processes which ensure payment to providers and insulation from lawyers, but have the net effect of stretching to the breaking point the patience of the patients. As if you were not already ill enough when you entered the health care system, you are certainly likely to leave the emergency room, hospital or clinic with a new medical problem — carpal tunnel syndrome from signing a vast library of forms.

The trick to career happiness is to find a field of work and, ideally, a place to work in which you are respected as an individual, encouraged to be innovative, and free to challenge and improve on the existing way business is conducted.

Certainly, not all members of the workgroup have the courage, optimism and compelling urgency to take what others might regard as a major career risk by actually challenging the status quo. Questioning the status quo can be regarded by entrenched colleagues as questioning their livelihood and their contribution over years or decades. It is no wonder that a bright “can do” spirited person coming to work in a bureaucracy will often become frustrated.

They may come to realize that their vision of how they could change the world, or their little part of it, is crashing and burning against the walls of the bureaucracy. They may find that they were never taught in public administration courses about realities as well as text book learning.

Providing this learning balance is part of why the HR Doctor has continued for more than 25 years to thoroughly enjoy teaching graduate students about HR and public administration. Perhaps this reality of contrast is one reason why there is a rather high turnover in the teaching profession and the nursing profession. That self-questioning and self-doubt is also present in the world of medicine.

The HR Doctor once served as vice president in a giant hospital system. There were physicians and multiple nurses on that HR staff who had chosen HR over the practice of their original health care professions for which they had spent so many years training. The reason was that they felt unable to practice the way they believed they should and were “hungry” for the variety and exposure to human behavior that they found in HR. It is truly a joy and an important time in life when you connect with a profession and with colleagues who bring you happiness. 

One of the lessons for a new arrival in a bureaucracy is to make it a personal passion to find ways to improve the procedures and the way of doing business inside an organization. It is an art form to be a creative catalyst for change in such a way that people will regard you as a “go to” colleague, rather than as a threat or as a person who is someone who will claw over your body in order to get promoted or recognized.

If you are one of the entrenched folks who regard change and innovation as more threatening than exciting, imagine all you are missing by not applying that storehouse of knowledge and experience to be an extraordinary agent of positive change. Who better to modify a civil service system, for example, than someone who has seen the previous system take too long, be too complicated and frustrate other people as well as yourself? Who better to understand how changes can take place which are helpful and clearer in understanding than what went on before? 

If all that experience and education can be merged with an attitude of innovation, and “why not change?” rather than a default against change, the result can see an organization through what might seem like the most difficult budget, technology or human behavior crises imaginable.

The most successful people at work respond to a new colleague who performs with excellence and brings new ideas to the workplace by being welcoming and encouraging, and perhaps sharing their own ideas rather than resisting the changes. Excellence in behavior and performance should be a role model for all of us, rather than something we fear or worry about.

As I say to my colleagues in the government entity in which I serve, “I’m only renting this chair from the taxpayers.” I will surrender the chair gladly at some point, most likely when the “fun-to-frustration” ratio turns sour. Part of my job is to ensure that I am quite replaceable, and in fact that the agency will likely be in better hands after I leave than even when I was present. Working with people of excellence, with diverse thoughts and a sense of constructive improvement, is very much a part of the joy of finding a profession and a workplace that helps you live longer. 

Whether you think of it as purely selfish because it will make your own life richer to work with great people or because you can give away projects and know that  they will be well managed, or whether you personally feel challenged to excel by working with such colleagues, the outcome is still the same.

Isn’t this the essence of successful behavior-change programs such as Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous or hiring a personal trainer? Being challenged positively by a workplace colleague helps you improve your own performance. It provides another model for you to consider in your work life and in your home life. I am inspired very regularly by participating in the lives, the adventures and the spirit of optimism that I see in my two beautiful HR daughters and my wonderful wife Charlotte. I don’t fear their excellence.  I relish it.  Try some of that relish in your own life.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •


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