Welles: Taming the lions at work

What can employees do to stave off attacks from bosses?

Even before officials released details this month, the new pay-for-performance rules were sending shivers down the spines of federal employees. What can they do to stave off attacks from bosses, who also may be vulnerable, in the changeover to new management systems?

New human resources management systems at the Defense and

Homeland Security departments may be the prototype for governmentwide change. The fear is that tying pay raises to performance will allow bosses to reward only a few favorites, not necessarily on the basis of merit, and overlook others, or worse.

"Any new system makes people worry about where they stand," said Steve Katz, author of "Lion Taming: Working Successfully with Leaders, Bosses and Other Tough Customers." "The challenge is to learn how to be perceived as a performer regardless of what system is in place." Katz was formerly chief counsel at the Merit Systems Protection Board and senior adviser to the comptroller at the Government Accountability Office.

"Comparing yourself to a lion tamer helps you deal with the strong and powerful around you," Katz said. That means dealing with a lion's — or leader's — need for dominance, social standing and survival.

Katz said a performance-based system elevates accountability in an agency's hierarchy. So you need to consider how your performance affects leaders.

"Lion taming is about rapport, not domination," he said. "It means building trust, respect and confidence. Ultimately, the managers determining performance are accountable for that performance and vulnerable because of it. As lion tamers know, lions need to know you won't hurt them, they need to see you have something they need, and they need to let you give it to them."

Lion taming is about building partnerships with your boss and others. It is also about communication. "Dealing with the highest levels of an agency means changing how you explain what you do," Katz said.

For example, he said, information technology professionals should talk about outcomes. Instead of talking about the process you use to accomplish your job, talk about benefits and results. How will people use the technology? How will they benefit from the project? How will it help the agency's mission?

Lee Salmon, an executive coach at the Treasury Department's Federal Consulting Group, said the transition to pay for performance is "a movement from the old paradigm to a new one we don't know about."

"It raises the questions of, 'How can I manage upward? How can I manage conversations and connect with leadership?'" he said. Salmon suggests finding common bonds between you and your boss, such as the importance of the agency's mission, and then align your work to the mission. "The challenge for everyone is how to do pay for performance in a constructive way," he said.

In lion tamer terms, that may mean showing managers you are part of the pride.

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.

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