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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.      Vol. 33, No. 21 * November 12, 2001

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Hysteria 101

There is a concept in psychology that can be quite valuable to public sector managers, and in particular to elected officials, county and city managers, and HR professionals. The concept refers to the Locus of Control.

The concept involves degrees of control over an individual’s life events, behaviors and outcomes. On one end of the scale is an external locus of control. On the other end is the internal.

Not surprisingly, people at either extreme of the continuum should most likely report to the nearest employee assistance program. We cannot completely control the events in our lives. To one degree or another we are all prisoners of circumstances. We cannot absolutely guarantee our own or our colleagues safety at work. Nor can we control the traffic congestion or the actions of a drunk driver approaching the same intersection we are approaching.

On the other hand, I can make decisions about whether I will wear a seat belt or a helmet before riding a motorcycle, or drive a car with front and side air bags. I can control whether I smoke or drink and whether I exercise or have regular check-ups. I can choose to spend less time watching Jerry Springer or wrestling and spend more time in private conversation with my children and my spouse. The list of choices I personally can make to be more in control of outcomes in my life is impressive.

That makes it all the more sad to consider the observation that the pendulum seems to be swinging more to the external locus side.

It is clear — at least to the HR Doctor — that this generation has significantly improved its performance when it comes to the volume and intensity of whining, the tendency to self-identify as a victim, and the “search for a scapegoat”— someone else to blame for what has happened or not happened to me! These trends move us away from accepting personal responsibility for our own actions.

The retreat from responsibility affects public administration — and society in general — in several ways. While retreating, it’s hard to move forward and make progress. Systems, rules, and practices tend to become more entrenched and resistant to change and innovation. Managers seek the safety of defending the status quo instead of seeking out opportunities to make positive improvements.

This is the realm of the incrementalist or of the auditor — reviewing what has been rather than what could be. While retreating from accountability and risk taking, a manager cannot effectively evaluate, coach or develop the work performance and behavior of others. The need for risk taking is an absolute necessity in improving an organization just as it is necessary in personal growth and in making scientific progress.

The HR Doctor’s main objective in this article, however, is to comment about another, and perhaps the most serious impact of the external locus. This impact is a highly communicable illness. It doesn’t even require the seven to 21 day incubation period of anthrax, small pox or other bio-terror. There is also no vaccine. The malady is our increasing vulnerability to the dreaded disease of hysteria.

It is self-inflicted and can spread rapidly. It can be induced by a terrorist appearing on television. It may be induced by over-zealous media practicing the “art” of choosing which stories to broadcast…and broadcast…and broadcast again based on the producer’s maxim “If it bleeds, it leads!” In fact, rumor unchallenged by fact, is also a major cause.

The breeding nutrient for the growth of hysteria is an overly external view of life. “There’s nothing I can do. I will be a victim. It’s not or never my fault.” These are the cries of the hysterical!

While a hysteria vaccine eludes us, there clearly are effective treatments available to the manager! The first is not to become a “carrier” by allowing rumor to stand unchallenged — or unconfirmed. Communicate honestly, rapidly and frequently. Even if the news is bad or difficult. Learn from the great HR Mayor Rudy Guilianni — make that Sir Rudy — with his excellent demonstration of leadership and communication of hope in the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks on America. Learn from the injections of trust and hope offered by President Roosevelt or Winston Churchill in the darkest days of the Depression or World War II.

Help colleagues understand that in many areas they are in control of their own destiny. Be loud in making sure the organization is responding to employee concerns about security.

Conduct a security study and share the results as well as the fact that the organization cares and is being proactive. Respond rapidly to complaints — especially those of a workplace violence and sexual harassment nature, which could cause high liability and morale trouble if not promptly and effectively handled.

The best — perhaps the only — effective response to hysteria is the courage of effective, active and visible leadership. Those who would hurt us or interrupt our lives will not succeed if we appreciate that we are very much in command of our own lives.

Eleanor Roosevelt said it better. “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” Perhaps, if 270 million Americans all recited the famous lines of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus, in unison, the sound and the impact will deafen Ossama Bin Laden and his associates. “…I am the master of my fate…I am the captain of my soul.”

Perhaps the magnitude of the sound will also help convince more of us to accept that we can build and keep a great nation by actively seeking responsibility and accountability rather than by retreating!

The HR Doctor wishes you peace and accountability!


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