Innovation: Are feds afraid of their own shadows?

Steve Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

I recently read a fascinating article in the Academy of Management Journal with the slightly daunting title “Implicit Voice Theories: Taken-for-Granted Rules of Self-Censorship at Work.”

The article, by James Detert of Cornell University and Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School, is about how employees decide whether or not to speak up about problems in their workplaces. The authors are not only interested in whistle-blowing but also in cases in which someone could point out inefficiencies or opportunities for improvement. The article is very relevant to a government management context — and not just for what it says about why employees often don’t speak up about problems.

The basic argument the paper advances, grounded in empirical evidence, is that employees make their decisions not based on how they have seen their bosses react but rather on implicit theories about how they expect their bosses to react. The authors define such theories as “largely taken-for-granted beliefs about the risk or inappropriateness of speaking up in hierarchical organizations.”

In two of the studies the paper cites, the researchers asked different groups some open-ended questions about their beliefs about speaking up, including asking them to report on “any beliefs you have about what, in general, makes speaking up to those with more power feel somewhat or very risky, dangerous, or inappropriate.” The authors identify five major kinds of answers, including fear that the boss would be offended by the criticism because he or she personally identifies with the activities being criticized and fear of negative career consequences.

The answers to the follow-up questions were even more interesting. In two studies, the authors asked respondents whether they had experienced the feared behaviors and outcomes. They found that people’s fears were seldom based on anything they had experienced.

Another study addressed the issue by asking about what behaviors people had observed, whether directed at themselves or in general. For example, the researchers asked whether employees agreed that “my boss gets upset when people point out problems with work routines that s/he has spent time developing or supporting,” or “my boss uses words and actions indicating that pointing out things needing improvement to those higher in the organization is a sign of disloyalty to her/him.”

The researchers then did a statistical analysis of the likelihood that an employee would speak up based on his or her implicit theories of boss behavior, controlling for what the employee reported about the boss’ actual attitudes. Amazingly, they found that whether employees spoke up was strongly related to employees’ implicit theories and not at all related to actual boss behavior. People in the studies who were unwilling to speak up were apparently afraid of, and victims of, their own shadows.

I believe the kind of situation described in this research is widespread in government. The example that comes most quickly to mind is the common view among feds that they will be punished if they make honest mistakes while trying something new or if they take the slightest risk, even a reasonable one, that turns out badly, and therefore, that it is dangerous for civil servants to take any risks at all. I’ve heard many feds express such views. But ask people to give an example, and they can rarely cite even one.

Many feds hold other dysfunctional attitudes about the federal workplace that also seem to be implicit theories rather than conclusions based on evidence. We should fight such attitudes because implicit theories almost always hinder better government performance.

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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Reader comments

Wed, Jun 24, 2015 Another Army IT Guy

Army IT Guy is spot on. I'm guessing we have the same experiences because I am seeing leadership doing investigations for the slightest infractions. Something goes wrong and you know that a 15-6 is headed your way with a view of finding the guilty party. We have a 15-6 going on now where the failure was clearly at the higher echelon but the investigator keeps coming back to get info to probably support a problem at the lower level (where we have no say so). We used ot be iniovative and solve cuatomer problems. Now we just want to pay more contractors to run things. They have zero responsibility for the outcomes and find ways to make the problems someone elses.

Wed, Apr 1, 2015 Fed w/30+ Years Metro DC

I realized over ten years ago that I lack the skill set and desire to change my behavior in order to become a senior manager in my agency. I'm too outspoken and get frustrated by the politics that influence the outcomes. As an engineer I find it too difficult to quantify the parameters of "politics" when assessing problems and developing solutions. I found I could be much more effective as a senior "worker" than a manager. In this assessment I measure effectiveness as a function of implementing change. I can often rally other "workers" around solutions and I've learned that it's important to keep management informed; but at the right time and over time I feel like I've acquired some implied authority to get things done. The main problem I still seem to have is recognising those hot button issues that bring management into the process and sadly tend to derail the momentum on some efforts. I can appreciate the complexities facing the managers in federal Government and, whenever possible, I try to keep my efforts from getting my bosses in trouble. I tried being a manager at the mid-point of my career and I found it much more satisfying discussing the activities and progress of the workers than trying to navigate the conflicting signs of my managers above me. It was like playing Monopoly without the rules, the dark, ...with a laser pointer, ...only speaking Farsi...

Wed, Dec 18, 2013 Army IT Guy

I work in the Army doing IT. It seems as though there is a concerted effort to do everything at the highest level and the heck with innovation. Empowerment seems to be frowned upon. Very difficult to innovate (or lead for that matter) when you have someone far away making decisions and when you ask why or for a clarification the answer is "Just do it because we know better!" If you see a problem with something and bring it up, it is pretty much ignored. All of this seems to be a drive to save money but all we are doing is paying more contractors (savings?) and pushing dedicated employees out the door. You try to do the things to support the customer but it seems we spend time "playing" with our systems instead. Innovation is squashed like a bug.

Tue, Oct 1, 2013

I also agree: stop blaming the employee. If I don't trust my supervisor, I'm not speaking up. They are the ones with the power.

Tue, Apr 24, 2012 Whipping Boy

My Federal Agency has the motto: "De Plagis Usque Meliores Animos Colligerent" (the beatings will continue until morale improves) Having seen firsthand what trying to get new things done will do for your career you learn to sit down and shut up.

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