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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.      Vol. 33, No. 4 * February 26, 2001

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You Got to Know When to Hold Up;
You Got to Know When to Fold Up

Every public administrator experiences times when he or she feels very strongly about a certain recommendation or outcome. The person may have worked very hard on a report and truly believes that the recommendation is the sum total of this person’s best analytical thinking, experience and education.

Then for whatever reason, the director, or the county manager, or the elected governing body rejects the idea and moves on to the next item. The result can be depressing and leaves the analyst feeling as though she or he has just been run over by a truck.

The immediate reaction is a mini-version of the stages of mourning outlined in the famous book by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying. The first of the five stages in a mourning process is denial. “That can’t be!” “There must be some mistake, they would never do that.” Once the person realizes that there is no mistake and “they” have rejected the recommendation, the person’s feelings migrate toward anger and frustration.

This is followed by bargaining to explore whether the outcome would be changed. Depression about the reality of the bad news is the fourth stage. Finally, the reality is accepted. The decision can’t or won’t be changed. It is time to think of the next assignment or other issues. It is time to “fold up” and not dwell too much or too long on what could have been or should have been.

The employee who will develop the most successful, productive and happy of careers will be the employee who learns and understands what occurs in the aftermath of a policy defeat. This is a person who learns from the experience without fixating on the defeat to the point where future work and future relationships are compromised.

The best managers and elected or appointed officials are the ones who understand their decisions’ impact on staff members. These officials take extra effort to communicate to the staff that their work is appreciated as they lay a foundation for the elected officials and the county or city manager to make better policy decisions. This kind of manager helps the employee understand that there may be factors or perspectives considered by the ultimate decision makers that have a different or greater weight in the process than the analyst considered.

These great decision makers never treat staff in a cavalier, arrogant or disrespectful manner. Those who do employ the tactics of arrogance are ultimately hurt as a result of their own behavior. The staff may be driven away or driven to avoid instead of engage these officials in the kind of collaboration that is necessary for everyone’s success.

It is especially important for “world class” managers to go out of their way to help professionals who are just beginning their careers and for whom the rejection of a recommendation may be acutely sad.

This is the time to be a mentor and a coach, a friend and a supervisor. This is a time to help the employee see the broad perspective of the manager’s years of experience and to help the person learn from the policy defeat so that the person’s overall enthusiasm for public administration remains strong and positive.

Yet many managers are not sensitive to the frustration and sadness members of their staff experience in these circumstances. The best managers remember back earlier in their careers when they felt strongly about an idea or recommendation that was never approved. They remember their own anger or disappointment, and they take affirmative steps to reduce the hurt felt by others.

Knowing how far to keep pushing a recommendation versus when to fold up the cards and move on to the next issue is a skill born much more of experience than of genetic predisposition. These are acquired skills that most people can master when they get help from their colleagues and especially their supervisors. This skill of “knowing when to hold up, knowing when to fold up,” is a key skill in life overall. It is a skill which transcends the workplace and can have a positive or negative affect on family relationships as well.

There is, however, a major exception to the notion of merely accepting an outcome and folding up. The exception relates to ethics and “principled decision making.”

Decisions that are based on personal interest instead of public interest or that are based on unlawful criteria, such as race or gender discrimination, place the new or seasoned employee at a particularly important ethical crossroads. Is it proper to accept a decision born of what looks like racism? Do I simply accept the decision and move on?

Everyone of us faces the kind of ethical dilemma portrayed above, or a less overt or serious version. Each professional develops a personal philosophy about how to respond to such cases. We each get to make our decisions about which way to go at these crossroads.

For the HR Doctor, the issues of principled decision making are more important than the convenience or comfort of just ignoring or walking by an ethical problem. Concerns about the ethical foundation of a decision are a compelling reason for the employee to make sure that her facts are in order and to make sure that the employee has communicated concerns in a respectful and professional manner to the decision maker. If the decision is still not reversed, and the decision maker strongly disagrees, the principled decision may involve the personal sacrifice of finding another job rather than compromising important ethical considerations.

Fortunately, for our profession and our country, we don’t often find ourselves at these particular crossroads. In most cases, we wish something could have changed. We may believe we are still right, but we should appreciate that someday we will also be in a decision making position, facing and weighing the alternatives that county commissioners and managers everywhere face regularly. The staff needs to be loyal, understanding and supportive of their own managers while being advocates for the position they believe to be the most effective recommendation.

Best regards from the HR Doctor.



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