Agency management could stand shot of tough love

Steve Kelman, professor of public management, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government

wfedstaff | April 17, 2015 3:33 pm

Tough love.

It hurts at the time, but it makes you stronger in the long run. It works for wayward kids, but can tough love work for organizations? Specifically, federal agencies?

A new piece of research from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government says: maybe.Steve Kelman, a professor of public management, who conducted the research joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris from the 2011 Executive Leadership Conference in Williamsburg, Va., to discuss what tough love means in an organizational setting. “Everybody knows the phrase ‘tough love,'” Kelman said. But, interestingly, there haven’t been any academic studies of how it works in government organizations, he said.

But there has been “an ancient debate” about how to motivate employees, Kelman said. Is it by nurturing and caring for them or pressuring them or pushing them?


In studying a European law enforcement agency, he said, the research indicated that managers need a mixture of both for effective performance.

“What comes out of the research is you need to do both,” he said. “Nurturing, by itself, isn’t enough. Toughness, by itself, isn’t enough. You need to put it together.”

Check out more interviews and coverage from the 2011 Executive Leadership Conference.