Think of a job where you found your “sweet spot,” you loved the work, served a real human need, had found your voice. Now think of a work situation where you had no voice – no real input, no opportunity to achieve what you wanted in public service. What made the difference, and what difference did you make?
Stephen Covey has profoundly influenced management over the past two decades. His 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was rated one of the most influential books and Covey himself one of the most influential people of the past decade. 7 Habits is simultaneously a self-help book and a guidebook for organizational effectiveness.
Fifteen years later, Covey recognizes that the world is a vastly different place. The challenges and complexities are greater, and there is more need for meaning. To thrive in the knowledge worker age, people must move beyond effectiveness to reach for greatness through personal fulfillment, passionate execution, and significant contribution.
Covey has defined an eighth habit that helps make this a reality: “find your voice and inspire others to find theirs.” It is about finding your personal truth and helping others to find theirs. “I didn’t invent the eight habits,” Covey says. “They are universal truths.”
The new habit appears to resonate with public servants, who see their mission as giving voice, to helping people achieve their voice, to making significant contributions. To them it is second nature. So I spoke with Stephen Covey about it.
How well do the concepts in your books apply to public service?
I like a quote from Peter Drucker who observes: “There are differences in management between different organizations – missions define strategy after all and strategy defines structure. But the differences between managing a chain of retail stores and managing a Roman Catholic Diocese are amazingly fewer than retail executives or bishops realize. The differences are mainly in the application rather than principles.”
That has been my personal experience as well. In most management jobs, people issues take up 80% of your effort. In any management role you need to focus on the four roles of the leader (modelling, pathfinding, aligning goals and systems for results, and empowering). The differences are mostly in semantics and situational aspects.
The biggest reason people are unsatisfied at work is that organizations have an incomplete paradigm of human nature. We want to use all four dimensions: our mind (to learn, to have challenging work, to be creative); our heart (to love, to be respected, to build relationships, treat people kindly); our body (to live well, be paid fairly); and our spirit (meaning and contribution, to leave a legacy).
To be effective in the private or public sector, we don’t manage people we lead people. We must build trust. The principles of human behaviour are the same in public, private and voluntary sectors.
I was recently in China, and they asked me what those principles are and where they came from. I replied by asking them about Confucius: would Confucianism suggest that we treat each other fairly, that we be kind to each other, that managers work to develop their staff, that they provide meaningful work, that they act with integrity. The Chinese replied, “Yes, Confucius teaches that.” I observed, “Then the roots of these principles are already in your culture.”
You don’t ‘motivate’ people. The carrots and stick approach is for jackasses, not knowledge workers. The leader’s job isn’t to manage people but to manage the process.
Everything about management practices that was developed for the industrial age needs to be reviewed in light of the knowledge age. Take the ‘negative sandwich’ technique of performance appraisal, for example, where, when you have to correct someone, you start first by saying how they are valued, then share your concern, then conclude by telling them something positive. That process is repugnant.
Jim Collins talks about getting the right people on the right seat on the bus. In the public sector, that is more difficult.
As a public service manager, your job, as Peter Drucker has pointed out, is to make peoples’ strengths productive and their weaknesses irrelevant. You have to look at your team. Marcus Buckingham uses the image of a chessboard. Your people are not interchangeable checker pieces that all have the same moves. They are individuals with different moves, different capacities and interests. Your role is to help them to find their voice and create a management process that maximizes their special strengths. People don’t change much, you don’t instil things into them, you draw out what is already there.
If you want to influence, be influence-able. Increase the number of questions you ask. Practice what you teach. There are six things that contribute to poor performance:
• Lack of clarity
• Lack of commitment
• Poor translation of corporate goals into individual goals and action
• Poor systems to enable and support
• Lack of synergy
• Lack of accountability. You need leading indicators as well as lag indicators. And you need to be transparent – light is a great disinfectant.
Despite the restrictions, you can still ask, “What can I do to counteract this, how can I contribute, whose permission do I need to do things better?”
We know the many negative voices in the public service – “I’m being asked to do more with less,” “my talents are not being used effectively,” “they use mushroom management” and “I wish my boss would stop lying to me…there is such a disconnect between what (s)he says and what (s)he does.” In The 8th Habit you suggest people search for a third alternative, to seek synergy rather than a win-lose option. You say management discussions should begin with the parties asking: “Would you be willing to search for a solution that is better than what either one of us has proposed?” and “Would you agree to a simple ground rule: No one can make his or her point until they have restated the other person’s point to his or her satisfaction.” This is a great model that is sure to build openness and trust. But how do you apply it when you are dealing with the political level, where parliamentary debate encourages just the opposite – to stick to your guns and ridicule the other’s position? Where policy is not always evidence-based and programs are kept going even though they have no impact?
I have done a lot of work on this issue. The difficulty is compounded because the third alternative is not part of the political paradigm. Most politicians are talking to their supporters, not to the other party or its followers. It is best for a deputy minister to speak with the minister privately, take the conversation to an authentic and real level, and suggest that they can find a solution. Then ask “How can we communicate this to your constituents without it looking like we’ve caved in or backtracked?” If that doesn’t work, go to the second level and try to drain the negative.