Kelman: Washington’s fear industry

The rest of the country focuses on creating a positive workplace to motivate workers

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Read Kelman’s blog, “The Lectern,” at www.fcw.com/blogs.

There was an interesting supplement in a recent issue of BusinessWeek called “The Future of Work,” which featured lots of helpful material, including a poll about attitudes on various work-related issues. One question that caught my eye asked people whether, 10 years from now, self-fulfillment or fear would be a more powerful motivator on the job. The survey
found that 82 percent said self-fulfillment would be more powerful, 18 percent said fear. This is the direction in which the work world is moving — except in Washington, unfortunately.

In Washington, there is a whole industry dedicated to the proposition that the way to motivate the government’s career workforce is through fear. The industry consists of inspectors general, most reporters covering government, so-called watchdog groups and many members of Congress. This industry regards career civil servants as slothful and/or venal, and it advocates a management philosophy closer to that of factory bosses from the age of the robber barons than to the direction in which the U.S. workplace outside government is heading: Use criticism and attacks to beat down employees or managers, and scare them into shape. The way to get government employees and managers to perform is to make them terrified that if they make a mistake, they will be exposed. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), a leader of the fear industry, recently described his philosophy as being to “embarrass people into doing their job.”

The fear industry usually parades under the positive, democratic-sounding term accountability. Accountability, however, is a fancy word for punishment. When was the last time you heard somebody say, “You did a great job on this project, so we will hold you accountable by giving you a promotion?” When people complain, “Where’s the accountability?” they mean, “Why has nobody been fired or sent to jail?”

Of course fear, or accountability, has a place in managing organizations, especially when we are talking about ethical misdeeds rather than honest mistakes or routine underperformance.

But the rest of the world, outside Washington’s fear industry, is learning just how incomplete fear, punishment and accountability are as tools to motivate good performance in an organization. Animals in lab experiments that are punished with electric shocks when they make mistakes soon become too cautious to try anything at all. When factory workers were treated 100 years ago the way the fear industry wants to treat federal employees and managers today, those workers responded with minimal compliance, but hardly with excellence, commitment or innovation.

The rest of the world realizes that for every ounce of fear as a motivating tool, we need a quart of encouragement, inspiration and empowerment. The inspiring missions of many government organizations, and the values that bring many people into the civil service, are ideally suited to managing by cultivating self-fulfillment. It is tragic that we dramatically underutilize the potential we have in government to make use of that raw material. This is a scandal, but not the kind Washington’s fear industry will ever expose.

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@
harvard.edu.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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