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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.      Vol. 33, No. 8 * April 23, 2001

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The Seduction of Comfort

“Welcome to the Hotel California … you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” The lyrics from the great song by the Eagles contain important messages for administrators and policy makers. It is natural to be seduced by a “place” in which we feel comfortable and to immediately take up defensive positions to avoid change and risk.

As we come to know the elements of a particular policy, such as civil service rules or procurement policies, we begin resisting constructive criticism or ideas about improvement or change.

We become “defenders of the faith,” unwilling to consider that in our comfort we may be missing opportunities for improvement. When you enter the Hotel California, in other words, you find that it’s very hard to leave behind or alter the concepts that have become your close administrative “friends”.

There is a danger in feeling too comfortable. The danger is that our comfort turns into inflexibility and excessive references to what was, instead of what could be. Comfort leads to complacency. In turn, we begin losing sight of the importance of a continuing search and challenge to ourselves to find ways to improve and ways to inspire others to improve. It can be argued that this cycle hurts our families, the agencies for which we work, our communities and ourselves more than any other problem faced by society.

Complacency is also infectious when one person is unwilling to change or consider change. Co-workers may give up trying to innovate in their own work habits over time. This infection is especially serious when the person involved is a supervisor, manager, or elected official.

As a parent or a spouse, in addition to being an employee and a member of the community, we allow our great potential to be wasted when we spend too much time in too much comfort.

The HR Doctor recommends immediate treatment. The main elements of the treatment are to first conduct a “diagnostic” review. Where do you stand?

What is the state of your organization? How up-to-date are the policies?

Perhaps a facilitated workshop led by an outside agent can focus and sharpen the understanding you and members of the staff who work with you have about where things are. From that discussion and the resulting diagnostic report, the next step becomes apparent.

That is, translate the goals and vision outlined in the diagnostic report, into a business plan. This certainly works in the human resources arena, however, it applies equally to public works, law enforcement, health care, human services and every other area in public administration.

The business plan translates the more strategic goals into measurable “digestible” components that can be attached to timetables and staff responsibility for outcomes. The business plan needs to be reviewed regularly and loudly celebrated when elements are successfully accomplished. When delays or difficulties are encountered in accomplishing business plan elements, it is important to ask why and to take rapid corrective action.

Fundamental to making progress is the importance of reward and recognition for the people working hard to improve the current situation and create a better future. The agency should consider not only a cash bonus program for demonstrated success in meeting measurable outcomes, but also intangible ways to recognize and celebrate. These include recognition by appointed and elected officials’ commendations, opportunities to work on diverse projects, and the very important use of the words “thank you” by supervisors.

The HR Doctor is calling for a change in the cycle that gets us into trouble.

The cycle of “comfort to complacency to rigidity” squanders opportunity and drives good people away. We need to substitute a different “cycle of success:” assessment or “diagnosis” to business planning, to acceptance of responsibility for outcomes, to celebration and recognition. This is the positive cycle of success in public administration and in life in general. This is the HR Doctor’s prescription for the most effective “recycling” of all. By adopting this approach to agency’s administration, you will find that you will be able to enjoy life in the Hotel California, but also be able to check out any time you like.

Best wishes!



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