The Silent Elevator

I was late to a meeting when the elevator stopped to pick up two more people, one significantly older than the other, but both employees in my organization. Based on their conversation, I could tell the older gentleman spent many years delivering our programs in the field. The younger was brand new, not even finished with orientation. As the doors closed, the older man looked at his young counterpart and said: “There’s only one thing you have to know to survive around here: these people at headquarters don’t know anything. They’re a bunch of idiots. They don’t understand what it’s really like on the front lines. So just ignore them. Get out in the field and you’ll be fine.”

It was a one-two punch in my gut. The first punch was basic: I work at headquarters, so he was disparaging people like me. The second was worse: This young man’s first impression of life in this organization is that some of us matter, and others don’t. I was simultaneously shocked and not shocked at all. I had heard this kind of rhetoric many times before, but never directed toward a new employee. The newbie listened intently, even nodding in polite agreement at certain points. Eventually, the elevator doors opened and I left without saying a word.

About a month later, I heard someone describe organizational “culture” as “the difference between what you tolerate and don’t tolerate.” My mind immediately soared back to that elevator. It was the quintessential example of a bad practice going unchallenged. My silence sent a signal of concurrence as loud as the older man’s words. Images of us versus them, haves and have nots, doers and bureaucrats all percolated in his formative mind without resistance from people like me. The false indoctrination of the next generation of employees went unchecked, as it usually does.

Practice Constructive Intolerance

Sometimes government cultures can feel like you’re stuck riding up and down on that silent elevator. Fingers get pointed, ideas get dismissed, data gets ignored, and very few people feel the safety or courage to stand up and practice constructive intolerance. What do I mean by constructive intolerance? To me, it is the practice of consciously modeling your behavior to reinforce the beliefs and practices you want more of and diminish those you want less. For example, I believe it is inappropriate for a senior employee to poison the minds and perceptions of newcomers before they have had a chance to discover the organization on their own. If I had a do-over, I would respectfully tell him I disagreed with his characterization. Then I would look at the young man and say “this place is what you make it, and I hope you feel empowered to make it better.”

Silent concurrence with bad practices is an epidemic among human beings, so no organizations, including governments, are immune. In my career, I’ve focused on practicing constructive intolerance for decisions made in the absence of data and objective information. In my opinion, we are called as public servants to make the best possible decisions using all available facts. But one of the most egregious silent elevators is the one that leads to a “data-informed culture.” On the first few floors, there is no data on that elevator. Every passenger sits idly by watching programs chase problems with money and solutions with instincts. But as it climbs higher, data makes an asymmetrical comeback. Governments start seeing pockets of excellence using data to inform their practices, but that practice is inconsistent. There is likely a data martyr on board, screaming about the importance of data – but he or she is an army of one. The other passengers either don’t care or don’t understand where to begin. At some point it becomes an express elevator, somehow leaping from the Excel floor to the Big Data showroom in one magic marketing cycle. People on those floors are buzzing about the importance of big data, but half of them have no idea what means or why it matters and no one feels confident enough to call them on it.

Focus on People, Not just Data

Many governments want to practice constructive intolerance for decisions devoid of data, but don’t know where to begin. Fortunately there are well-researched methods to reinforce the practices you want and diminish those you don’t. First, begin by accepting the fact that data doesn’t drive, people do. Maybe someday the robots will take over and the machines will win. But until then, people still matter. That’s why we can’t be silent on the elevator. We have to engage and confront each other in constructive ways, to educate one another about what is possible and what is acceptable.

Second, make formal and informal changes to reach people on emotional and rational levels. Most organizations make the formal changes because they are easier to make. But informal changes can be even more effective and reinforce the formal signals. Formal changes include new org charts, revised position descriptions, effective talent development, updated policies, streamlined procedures, better compensation, enhanced benefits, and targeted awards. Informal changes include the promotion of teamwork, leading by example, spotlighting good behaviors, configuring the workspace to promote collaboration, creating internal networking opportunities, and fostering communities of practice. One of the most important ingredients to focus on is talent development. Governments need the best and brightest working on society’s toughest problems.

As you promote core practices, behaviors, and values, find employees and programs who are already exhibiting them every day. Leverage those employees to teach and train your team on what success looks like when model behaviors are implemented. Focus on middle managers, who make and break culture. Give them direct feedback and specific opportunities to exhibit model behaviors. At the end of the day, employees change the culture more than the leaders, so leaders should acknowledge their own vulnerability, admitting they don’t always exhibit model behaviors but are willing to change.

Finally, deal with detractors. Dealing with detractors does not require firing them. In fact, the exercise of power should be the last tool in the toolbox. Consider giving more money in the budget to programs and departments that exhibit model behaviors so other programs take notice. Use the press and media to spotlight model departments, so others see what kind of work gets rewarded with public praise. Don’t parachute in a whole new team to kickstart a culture change; people react more constructively to positive reinforcement than criticism, so aim for inspiration over intimidation.

Learn More about Culture Change

These are just a few tips for practicing constructive intolerance as you ride the silent elevator of government culture. For more thorough resources on this topic, the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University has published a Culture Change resource with more in-depth advice and links to published research and articles on the topic of culture change and data-driven cultures.