Communicating with your boss requires some finessing. That does not mean to be dishonest. We communicate in speech and in deed. So if your boss sees that you’re doing an excellent job, delivering on what you said you would, and attending to the finer details of your job . . . and . . . and adding unseen value that he approved of in advance, wow, then he should be impressed. But what if he’s not? What happens if you’ve got solutions for certain aspects of operations and he doesn’t want to be bothered? This happens all the time. Most people in any organization are time strapped, more so if the organization’s margins are so thin that anyone in the organization is asked to do their job specifically and that’s it. So how do you communicate valuable insight to your boss?
It depends. If your boss is a bureaucrat, the one thing that he hates is embarrassment. Mainly because he’s not been voted in by a group of community constituents but instead was appointed by a bureaucrat higher up than he is. So bureaucrats hate embarrassment and will run and hide instead of and when they are faced with controversy. I saw this when I taught high school. One teacher wrote letters to the faculty explaining what the principal was doing behind everybody’s back to just a handful of teachers. He didn’t like it and had nowhere to hide. He finally ceased his harassment because of one teacher’s outing of him in public. It’s true–bureaucrats hate embarrassment.
1. Respect your employer’s time.
2. Honor his position.
3. If you’re going to recommend some new operation or new program, show how it will benefit the folks he supervises and show how it will make him look good if he decides to implement the program.
4. Do not give him reason to suspect you of insubordination or betrayal or subversion of any kind.
Dr. North’s article on police and cameras prompted me to write on how to get a bureaucrat to act.
I work for the federal government. From my experience, bureaucrats are afraid of only one thing–embarrassment. It borders on paranoia and I have rarely seen it in any other organization to this extent.
BASICS OF GOVERNMENT EMBARRASSMENT
In many organizations, there are important metrics that are tied to an organization’s survival: quarterly revenues, customer satisfaction, % of sales from new products, etc. In government, most organizations have none. The only metric to judge whether an employee is doing good or not is what I call the embarrassment factor. If there is nothing that will cause embarrassment to the boss, department or organization, the employee is doing good. If something embarrassing happens, the employee is bad. It really is that simple. Embarrassment is one of the few currencies in government.
You would think that this is limited to the upwardly mobile GS-12 through GS-15 ranks (mid-level managers). You would be wrong. I have seen GS-06 secretaries pull out the claws when they get caught doing something silly and embarrassment is caused. I received an e-mail from a commander, a so-called leader of warriors, that said the following: “We need to discuss this subject before the next meeting so that we don’t get embarrassed.”
Remember that in a private organization, you get promoted or get to keep your job by being productive. In government, you move up by avoiding mistakes and embarrassment.
HOW TO GET A GOVERNMENT BUREAUCRAT TO ACT
However perverse the incentives in government, you can use their fear of embarrassment for the forces of good. Be warned that your tactics will not be the same in dealing with bureaucracies that are actively hostile to the public such as law enforcement and TSA.
First, never threaten, scream or get angry with a bureaucrat. They will simply hide behind some bureaucratic rule. They will not have to act, which is what they want. There is always some sort of official form or rule that they can use to their advantage. Working within the written framework will hand you a loss every time.
There is always some sort of watchdog or ombudsman office in every bureaucracy. The police call it internal affairs. Most federal agencies call it the Inspector General (IG). For utilities, the Public Utility Commission is it. You can always find out the contact information of the watchdog and file a written complaint. These watchdogs are in a sense auditors and auditors justify their budgets and budget increases by investigating complaints. You are doing them a favor. I do not exaggerate when I say that every auditor will have to quantify exactly how many complaints he answered and resolved on a regular basis. Be forewarned, many of the people working as an IG investigator are sworn law enforcement officers and you can get in a lot of trouble for making a false complaint. Treat it exactly as if you were swearing to an affidavit.
Once the complaint is filed, the IG will speak to the person accused, the accused person’s chain of command, and likely co-workers. The chain of command will be scrambling and trying to cover up. They may have known about the bad behavior but now they are forced to take official notice of it. There will be meetings, reports, files, and other official correspondence to make the complaint go away. But the damage is done to the bureaucrat who was uncooperative with you. He is embarrassed. His career is unlikely to recover for several years or unless he switches to a different agency. When I worked as an intern for an electric utility (quasi-government organization), a complaint was filed by a little old lady who was mad her lights were flickering. This single complaint consumed all of the man-hours of an entire department for three days.
Get the supervisor’s name and e-mail him or write a letter of complaint. Be sure and courtesy copy someone senior in the organization. You would think that a supervisor will just sweep it under the rug. I guarantee you he wants to but he won’t. Someone senior in the chain of command has been notified, there is now embarrassment, and the lower level employees will be pressured to make it go away. Where I work, when someone just makes a phone call complaint, I will have to spend between two and ten hours in meetings and interviews to resolve the situation. Once someone senior in an organization gets a complaint officially or in writing, he will not go to the accused. He will go to his immediate subordinate who will go down the chain until the employee is notified. All people in the chain will be worried sick. if there is another thing that bureaucrats hate, it is to be surprised by something embarrassing. When I have to give a briefing at work, I am not allowed to brief on anything that my chain of command doesn’t know about– no surprise answers. You can often find biographies of senior managers on government websites. Some GS-7 clerk blew you off? No problem, just e-mail some department director or GS-15 you find on a website and tell him the problem. Bonus points if you can courtesy copy other departments competing with the accused organization for budgets. That just multiplies embarrassment and may fracture political alliances as people who want to move up don’t want to be guilty by association.
Copy the organization’s HR, EEOC and general counsel with the complaint. Of course the general counsel will know that the complaint is likely not actionable but the manager of the accused will be embarrassed that “the lawyers” are now involved and of course it will upset his boss too. As for EEOC, it is better if you can insinuate something that would run afoul of laws dealing with protected classes but if there is one thing that scares a bureaucrat above all else, it is EEOC. And of course the complaint goes on his permanent record.
Write a letter of complaint to your congressman and courtesy copy as many people as you can in the bureaucrat’s chain of command. The letter must include a CC list at the bottom of the letter indicating all parties who have been courtesy copied.
WHAT HAPPENS INTERNALLY
In any government organization, you fix the blame not the problem. The accused will be called into a manager’s office, likely several levels up with every middle manager there and interrogated on what happened. These interrogations are not kind– we are dealing with cornered scared bureaucrats after all. They will likely have the accused questioned by several managers in turn as each finds out what happened and conclude with a strong admonition that the rules should be followed– even if the accused is innocent.
If the department is not sure who to blame– they will begin having meetings and each person will point fingers, accuse everyone else, and make excuses. If the meeting was inter-departmental, the managers in the meeting will hold another meeting with their respective subordinates and chew them out because it is embarrassing and “this shouldn’t have happened.”
If the boss hates the accused, you’ve just done the boss a favor as he will use your complaint to get the employee transferred or punished. If the second level manager hates the first level manager, you’ve given him ammunition to do something. Anyone who hates anyone will use this.
Keep in mind that government managers are very often exemplars of the Peter Principle. They get promoted one level above their competence and remain there for 20 years until they retire. As no punishments really matter with civil service protections, they do the only thing they can: scream, insult, and write scathing e-mails. Even people who know they will never be promoted again hate being embarrassed in government– after all they still hold out hope that one day they just might get a grade increase.
Look up the website. Often there will be a link to Public Affairs or whatever that agency calls the PR guy. You will find some e-mail that has XXXXXX@XX.XX.XX. So you know the suffixes that come after the @ symbol. You can easily add the director’s name, employee’s name, or supervisor’s name if you asked the employee for it. Also look for news stories on web sites. Sometimes you can find news stories featuring the person you want to get moving and his supervisor too. This is particularly common with military websites.
You can also file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request asking for an organizational chart including the names and official contact information of managers. This gives you everything you need to contact everyone who can make a difference. Aim for about three or four levels up, and at the second level from the top person you contacted, be sure to include every departmental manager at that level.
Just filing a complaint is enough to spin the wheels but it is much better if you have written evidence, no matter how scant. This gets the bureaucrats moving even faster and makes it easier to affix blame. If there is blame to be passed, it will be affixed to someone– or to the manager if nobody else can be blamed. But someone will be blamed.
If you think that government is dysfunctional, I’d say that you have no idea how far down the rabbit hole goes. The higher the level in government, the more dysfunctional it gets and the more embarrassment as a currency is worth. Try it out sometime– cause embarrassment to a government employee and see what happens. You may not get the results you want externally, but you will cause trouble for the employee internally.
Remember that government employees are driven by fear more than anything (which is ironic considering they have civil service protection). They are also largely amoral and lack integrity and moral courage. All of these can be used to your advantage.