Many federal employees feel their bosses are too willing to throw them under the bus.
More than 92 percent of respondents to an exclusive Federal News Radio survey said the government needs to rebuild trust with its employees, while nearly 68 percent of respondents said they think a lack trust is driving federal employees away from their jobs.
The strain on agency resources may only be making matters worse
As part of Federal News Radio’s special series, Trust Redefined: Reconnecting Government and Its Employees three federal employees at different stages in their careers — one a newer, younger employee, another who recently came from the private-sector, and the third a 40- year veteran — shared their views with Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp on how to restore in the federal workplace.
Listening, communication key to building trust
Trust isn’t only an issue in the federal workplace.
“It really is an organizational issue,” said Lena Trudeau, who left the private- sector three years ago to become associate commissioner for strategic innovations at the General Services Administration, where she oversees the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. “Any time you are trying to do any kind of meaningful work with others and need to take risks, you need to have trust in place if you’re going to be able to do that effectively.”
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But building trust between different layers of any organization isn’t always easy.
Tony Regalbuto, chief of the Office of International and Domestic Port Security at the Coast Guard spent 31 years on active-duty in the Coast Guard and the last 12 as a civilian. As he climbed the career ladder, he said, it was important to maintain two-way communication.
“Newbies” to any organization first need to learn “follow-ship,” Regalbuto said.
“And then, as you get more senior in the organization, your leadership ability starts coming out,” he added. “And you look at those qualities in the people that are senior to you and you try to pick out the good qualities that are important to follow and see the things that don’t work.”
Even now as a manager, he said he maintains an ear to the ground of his workforce. He pointed to advice in the self-help classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which counsels readers to “seek to understand before you seek to be understood.”
“So, as a leader, you really have to have your listening ear on to be able to hear what their concerns are before you then try to put out what your vision may be, because you really want to empower” your employees
‘The best way to find out if you can trust somebody …’
When Trudeau first came to GSA three years ago, listening was a critical part of the on-boarding process, she said.
“I’d been brought in to be a change agent,” she said. “So, if that’s going to be a successful endeavor, you need to really have people on your side and feel like you’re in their corner and working with them and for them — not there to do something to them.”
She said her personal philosophy of trust aligns with that of Ernest Hemingway, who is reputed to have remarked: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
As a manager, she said, “I tend to give trust at the beginning. … Some people really make you earn it before they give it. I tend to give it and see what you do with it. And then make decisions from there.”
She said she’s been disappointed a few times. But, “in the vast majority of cases, people have been much more empowered than they would have otherwise been and have achieved results we wouldn’t have achieved if we hadn’t started off from that position,” she added.
Rank-and-file employees also need to do their part. They could benefit from being more proactive about building relationships with their supervisors, said Tyler Robinson, a portfolio risk officer at the Export-Import Bank for the past three years and chairman of the executive board for Young Government Leaders.
“When you’re trying to prove yourself and get that trust going both ways, a lot of times I just start walking into offices,” Robinson said. “A lot of my managers have had the open-door policy … and those conversations have been the best way for me to develop that trust both ways.”
Feds face tough trust climate
Still, both federal employees and managers face a difficult budget and political climate.
Lawmakers have been more apt to tigthen agency purse strings in recent years, and the public image of federal employees has also faced a battering.
Robinson said surveys of younger federal employees conducted by Young Government Leaders show many millennial feds are only planning to stay around for two to three years at most. A more recent survey found about 50 percent of YGL members are thinking about leaving their organization in the next year.
“And that’s fairly high and can be fairly scary for different managers,” he said.
The government shutdown, furloughs and fiscal turmoil have “dampened the enthusiasm” for many younger workers to stay in federal careers over the long haul, Robinson said. “But it hasn’t eliminated the desire to do so,” Robinson said. “Most of our members are driven by public service or by the mission of the agency. So I think those things can override some of the clouds that can come over. But in terms of building trust, a lot of it comes down to communication and managers talking with their employees about what do you want to get out of this particular position?”
Trudeau acknowledged a “particularly tough” climate now for building trust within the federal workplace.
“A lot of our leadership turns over fairly frequently,” she said. “And although that happens in the private sector, the rate of turnover in the public sector — that I’ve witnessed just in my tenure — has been really kind of extreme. So, what that means is, we need to build trust on a much more rapid cycle and more often than I’ve experienced in the private sector.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-9 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.