There is an old metaphor in the world of systems thinking that if you drop a frog in hot water, it will hop out right away. But put one in room temperature water and then turn up the heat very slowly and the frog won’t realize what’s happening. Voila. Frog’s legs for dinner (if you like that kind of thing.)
Such is our state today with organizations, work and authority.
All around us, the world is changing very fast – scary fast. Information and personal mobility, a new generation of workers, the continuing shift from industrial to knowledge economies, globalization, technology and other forces are reshaping the landscape.
But are federal supervisory practices really changing?
I’m going to say “no,” and argue that the dominant, implicit mental model is often straight out of the 1950s. It includes such inviolable tenets as:
- Power makes right
- The job of supervisors is to tell people what to do
- Presenting a different idea from the boss’s is not wise for career management purposes
And so on.
The problem with fundamental change is that we wake up each day and pretty much do what we did yesterday. A crisis may shift that, but we are usually creatures of habit – our brains are hard-wired that way. (Relying on deep memory conserves energy, while constantly deciding anew what to do makes us tired.) These habits run the show.
And so I don’t think it was any accident that on the same day, blogs from the Harvard Business Review and the great Scott Eblin reminded us in a very pointed way that it’s getting mighty hot in here.
Allison Fine in her article, “What Does ‘Professional’ Look Like Today?” made some of the following distinctions:
|Old Professional||New Professional|
|I am closed to the world||I am open and accessible to the world, strengthening my relationships with people|
|I can’t make mistakes in public||I am human. When I inevitably make mistakes I apologize quickly and sincerely|
|I am expected to have answers to questions||I am searching for answers with my network of colleagues and supporters|
|Power is taken and held||Power is shared and grown|
You can find the rest of her article here:
Then, Scott weighed in with a blog about his class reunion at Harvard, where Joseph Nye, former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Harvard professor, spoke about power. He argued that:
- Soft power is as important as hard power. Influencing is just as important as having brute force. Whoever has the superior “story” or idea wins.
- Power is no longer a zero sum game. Everyone can win.
- Whoever collaborates most wins. Contrast this with a competitive mind-set.
You can see Scott’s blog here:
These kinds of emerging beliefs are often given lip service, but they really are the new order of things. It’s always hard to predict social change. Sometimes there’s a flashpoint. Other times it’s more gradual. I would argue that Generation Y is one voice of the new model. So is the talent that walks out the door when faced with a retrograde, command-and-control hierarchy (which is great in a crisis or emergency, but which is counter-productive with knowledge workers).
Federal supervisors can ask themselves whether, in both their thinking and actions, they are mainly left- or right-column people in Allison Fine’s contrast, or whether they buy Nye’s precepts. They might also ask their employees what they think about these distinctions.
And since personal change is hard, they can start on the road by altering just one behavior. It might be to collaborate with someone, admit a mistake or share power. And then they can notice the results of this change. We care a lot more about direction than speed in human development, and once they are on the road – if it works – there’s more fuel in the tank for the next effort. As has been said, “Change is inevitable; growth is optional.”