Confessions of a Public Service Manager

In my first supervisory position, I inherited a clerk who had been with the organization a long time, and who had passed his best before date. Everyone knew this, and told me it had been this way for years. But when I pulled his personnel file, I saw only a few scattered performance appraisals, years apart. And they ranged from mildly positive to effusive in their praise.

Being fresh, and not knowing that in the public service you weren’t supposed to address poor performance, I spoke with him and set the expectations. He responded well. His performance improved, and I realized what a great leader I was for having solved this problem. So I gave him a good performance appraisal. And, in no time at all, his work fell back into the old pattern.

I realized I had been played. None of our discussions were documented, as he had responded so well to my supervision I didn’t think it necessary. It took another two years of going about it the right way before he took early retirement to become a bar tender.

Next up was a caseworker, John. He was great at his job and could connect well with clients. But he also went on occasional benders and simply didn’t show up for work the next day. That created a problem, as I had to manage his appointments for the next day, not knowing when he would be in.

So I spoke with him, using the old positive sandwich: first something positive, then your concern, then a reinforcing positive. “We like your work, but you simply have to let us know when you won’t be in to work, and perhaps you should curb your drinking…and we very much look forward to your continued contribution to our organization.”

His performance improved. No missed shifts, no drinking binges. I realized I was a great manager and had successfully resolved the problem.

Then one night, at three in the morning, the phone rang. Insistently. This was pre-cellphones and I had only one phone at my home, in the kitchen. Knowing it had to be a disaster of some kind, a relative in hospital, a fire, a car accident, I stumbled downstairs and grabbed the phone. I could hardly hear the voice on the other end because of the noise – a loud, drunken party. It was John. “Per your instructions Paul, I am calling to tell you I won’t be in to work this morning.” He hung up, having followed my instructions to the letter, if not in spirit.

Years later I met some maritimers at a conference. For some reason we got into telling “drunk” stories. They shared one of a friend whose boyfriend would get drunk and serenade her at 3:00 in the morning under her university dorm window. I shared my story of John and the 3:00 a.m. phone call.  “That sounds just like our John,” they said. And it was. The exact same guy, five years and 1,500 kilometers away. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Modesty has never been one of my flaws, but these two experiences that I mismanaged restored a bit of humility and caused me to think about my leadership style.

Feel free to share your “mismanage with me stories” on our blog, and the insights you gained from them.

Paul Crookall
Paul Crookall is editor emeritus of Canadian Government Executive.