Where’s Government’s 12th Man or Woman?

Humans have been organizing themselves since the dawn of time, starting as packs, just like wolves or street gangs.  But we’ve evolved, thankfully, and so has our organizing.  Frederic Laloux elegantly traces the history of this parallel–between human consciousness and that of the organizations we’ve formed–in his 2013 book Reinventing Organizations.  It’s not Shades of Grey but for us practitioners of organizational health, it’s pretty riveting stuff.

It’s riveting because it describes the emergence of a totally new way of organizing ourselves to make good things happen.  Even better, it maps with what we see glimmers of in our work inside local government.

We’ve been working at almost every level of the hierarchy inside King County and City of Seattle these last few years.  It’s no secret that the effects of hierarchy weigh big on the negative side of the equation.  The pyramid structure of government, nearly the oldest organizational design, may have been what we needed to manage large scale infrastructure and public services, but it’s disabling to innovation and disempowering for everyone, even those at the top.

We’ve observed work cultures dominated by fear of reprisal, lack of transparency in communications, persistent triangulation, and an embedded ‘victim-aggressor’ mindset.  Employee trust in management decision-making is abysmally low and breeds toxic cynicism.

This ‘dis-ease’ within government reveals its symptoms inside and out.  High rates of absenteeism, sick leave, workplace injuries, and grievances constrain a burdened system already having to do more with less.  Exacerbating the problem is our increasing distrust in the system.  The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reports that public distrust of the federal government hovers around 80%, an all-time high.

All of this feels tragic. Paradoxically, as public distrust grows, polls reveal we want government to do more for us, not less.  For employees in the system, what began for many as a desire to serve the public and steward our commons, becomes a struggle to survive in work environments that undermine individual agency, creativity, impact, even physical health, and fracture employees’ collective ability to deliver on mission.

I’m haunted by the image of Russell Wilson’s tear stained face after the Seahawks’ play-off victory a few week ago.  His message was clear —“we never stopped believing in each other.”  I’m haunted, because I rarely hear my clients give each other such benefit of the doubt.  The safety to make mistakes and the space to learn from them is uncommon. Yet this safety is the essential ingredient required for the kind of innovation needed to meet the expectations of an impatient, demanding public with rapidly declining resources.

So where are those glimmers, you say?  The glimmers we see come from small teams finding more cohesion and a new dynamism.  We see small groups of people either who have reached the end of their rope and, through crisis, have re-imagined how they want to work together or whose immediate supervisor has an innate intelligence about organizational design that supports the human beings in the room to do their best work.  Either way it’s an opportunity for a new approach.

Our approach involves a series of “learning labs,” healing historical conflict and 1:1 coaching.  We follow an emergent curriculum that integrates training in non-violent communications, Jungian psychology, creative habits of mind, and dynamic facilitation.  Along the way, and when they are ready, we observe individuals stepping up to a higher level of personal power and accountability.  This individual power and accountability translates directly into higher team function on a range of measures, both qualitative and quantitative.

Though a single individual’s change can energize a group, it takes everyone on a team choosing changed behaviors to catalyze real transformation.  And when that happens, it’s like watching a metamorphosis as dramatic as that of the nymph becoming a dragonfly.

The new team is truly barely recognizable from the old.  How?

  • Apathy and disengagement become active contribution and participation by every member.

  • Fear of reprisal becomes vulnerability by all to admit mistakes and a desire to learn from them.

  • Reluctance to deal with conflict transforms into willingness to have difficult conversations and clear up misunderstandings right away.

  • Confusion around roles makes way for the emergence of new roles and latent leadership skills within all members of the team.

  • Deflection of leadership/accountability shifts into excitement by all to tackle collective problems, share decision-making and even “hold the whole.” 

  • Triangulation dissolves into a practice around transparency to reduce misperceptions and distrust. 

  • Negativity about coming to work becomes a new enthusiasm for being part of a transformed team.

  • Fulfilling basic expectations elevates to greater individual creativity and group intelligence. 

  • Lack of trust in management becomes increasingly irrelevant as teams refine their own, shared purpose. 

So this glimmer we speak of becomes a dawn when we focus on teams.  Teams have always provided the structure for humans to come together to do extraordinary things.  Every successful company knows this, every winning sports team, every truly healthy nuclear family.  Teams harbor the potential for true alchemy, for out-sizing the sum of our parts.  When the people around us believe in us despite our unavoidable mistakes, we discover our genius.  And hard as it is for many skeptics to believe, we’re witnessing it insidegovernment.

To its credit, King County’s Executive leadership has focused on healthy teams for several years through its Lean Initiative.  Lean’s roots lie in the organizational principles of Kaizen, a management philosophy cultivated by Toyota and now applied throughout the world.  It empowers employees at every level to work together to map out new work processes that reduce inefficiencies and save money.  We’ve heard Lean’s engagement practices also leave a healthier culture in its wake.  Two birds with one stone, as they say.

Yet, many managers are realizing that Lean’s culture changes don’t last.  Without direct attention to culture—how we treat each other, how we ‘operationalize’ our stated values—Lean’s benefits can dwindle over time.  We believe investment in culture change should happen first, creating the strongest foundation for Lean’s innovations to live long and prosper.  Many of our allies in the public sector agree and have witnessed the benefits of sequencing it this way.

While it’s probably more politically palatable to make LEAN the priority because of its focus on material efficiencies, a more pragmatic path is one that elevates culture to the same level as process stream improvements.  And it starts with groups of individuals at the top of the pyramid modeling the trust, transparency and distributed leadership needed to create cohesive, dynamic teams at their highest function.

However we do it, we’re officially signing up to be government’s 12th man or woman.  Because we haven’t stopped believing in the people who, among many other things, fix our streets, run our transit systems, tend to our parks, bring water and electricity to our homes, process our trash, keep us safe, educate our children, and house and feed those of us with the least.

And it seems to be making a difference.  So connect with us, we’d love to tell you more about what we’re learning and keep the conversation going.



Lisa Fitzhugh