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September 07, 2009
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Many Degrees of Separation

National Public Radio recently featured a story about the effects of waging a war when the military is an all-volunteer group versus a draft-based army. The story’s main lesson was that while there are advantages to a volunteer military, self-selecting servicemen and women present a huge strategic weakness by opening the door for increasing detachment from the society and from the greater public.

An army made primarily of draftees brought the two World Wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War into every neighborhood and every home. It made elected officials more accountable for their stewardship of the lives of draftees and the families supporting them. It made the war’s daily events top news to families across the country.

The danger of the volunteer army is that this detachment is also a separation which, in the long run, is dangerous to American democracy because not all Americans will have a connection to the conflict.

True or not, this premise made the HR Doctor realize that our society is increasingly the victim of detachment and separation anxiety. We play video games or watch movies and TV programs that portray violence so graphically and so frequently that we can easily become detached from the idea that violence is real and there is no simple “reset” button. It should not be a basis for solving personal interaction problems with coworkers, neighbors or, for that matter, nations. 

It is a particular danger for local governments if we allow silos to be created where citizens have to “crawl over broken glass” to communicate with their government or to achieve basic transactions such as applying for a job or getting a driver’s license. 

When a government agency and its employees lose sight of their basic roles in direct citizen service, the result can be increased legal liabilities and increased human suffering. Imagine what happens when people work in a culture that encourages covering up poor performance or behavior, making excuses or blaming others.

Imagine now that you are a person who dials 9-1-1 with symptoms of a heart attack and a crew of paramedics arrives who are the products of that “entitlement” and “I don’t care” attitude. The result can be deadly for you and reflect poorly on the organization. Fortunately, these poor attitudes exist in a small minority of employees, but the effects rattle around for a very long time in the minds of those who would cut government resources substantially. 

An agency that tolerates sexual harassment or bullying behavior and doesn’t teach its supervisors to intervene is not serving the public and its own employees well. Conversely, a mission-oriented organization with supervisors who support and appreciate their role in responding to 9-1-1 calls or making sure that the water or wastewater is properly and professionally managed, that the streets are kept safe from debris and that the parks are safe for children, have an everyday positive effect on the reputation and the reality of public service.

Separation and estrangement go hand in hand. Together they form an unfortunate and dangerous duo. Every elected official, every appointed official and every employee in government has a duty to positively represent  public service. That is only achievable when silos are smashed to bits and working together replaces working for a narrower interest. 

It is harder to do that in a time of cutbacks and budget troubles. Using the subtraction key on a calculator is much more difficult than using the addition key. Nonetheless, in times of economic cutback a deliberate strategy of attacking silo-building becomes much more important.

The HR Doctor strongly urges that every county manager or county administrator ask important questions of their government, executives and subordinates. Does our organization suffer from an overdose of silos? How can we make sure employees out there on the front line are “representing” effectively? Are we communicating with residents everyday in a positive way? If not, what specific steps can we take — and by when — to measure the success of that communication and to learn from weaknesses to build strength?

Communication is about more than direct written or verbal interaction.  Sometimes the most important types of communications are subtle or unobtrusive. That is, they are the result of observation rather than direct interaction.

The public works crew that appears to be lying down under the shade of a tree for 45 minutes or an hour provokes angry citizen response. Police officers who are rude provoke a similar response. A lifeguard who is busy chatting on a cell phone instead of observing the children in a swimming pool isn’t serving the employer or the children well. Using foul language, filthy uniforms or driving agency vehicles poorly are also examples of indirect behavior that communicates the wrong impression.

Working to prevent that from happening and, in fact, encouraging positive direct and indirect communication is very much part of the manager’s job. Putting a premium on employee behavior such as smiling and pleasantly greeting citizens, answering questions, going out of your way to explain processes and procedures to citizens, or even helping them navigate through government hiking trails is equally important. This is also the behavior that the manager needs to display as a role model.

When we separate from each other we create suspicion and distrust. Local government, more than any other level of government, needs to reduce separation and isolation. Instead, our prime directive is to foster understanding and have a common sense of mission and a shared appreciation of the fundamental role we play everyday in maintaining a civil society.

Phil Rosenberg

The HR Doctor •


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