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What the Government Could Learn from My Mother

January 21, 2015

In the first three blogs that I wrote on how to improve scores on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), I provided suggestions from the perspective of both management and the employees. I also explained how to improve your scores within the current way work is designed and what I believe is the work design of the future.

Today, I want to give you the perspective of the wisest person I have ever met – my mother. She only had a high school diploma, and she never held a managerial position. Despite this, she was an incredibly wise and influential person.

At her memorial service, my father mentioned the fact that my mother had primarily been a housewife. However, after hearing all about her and how much she meant to so many people, the Rabbi presiding over her service stated that he believed she was something different – a great teacher. There is no doubt in my mind he was right.

What can we learn from her?

People were attracted to my mother, wanted to be near her, and were willing to do almost anything for her, because she had an incredibly positive attitude about life and treated everyone with respect, dignity, and a high degree of warmth. That type of mindset and approach is something that I believe all employees in government (and the private sector) would love for their supervisors/managers/leaders to have, but as the FEVS clearly shows, far too few display it.

I recognize, of course, that we all have different personalities and leadership styles. However, anyone can apply the approach that she took towards dealing with other people. Let me give you just a few examples of the things she used to say to me and then describe how any supervisor (or employee) can apply them.

“If you praise people, you will lift them up and they will try and meet your expectations”

By this she meant it is better to pull people up than to push them down. In other words, if you treat them well, and say “thank you,” or “I appreciate what you have done,” every time they do something well, your employees will respond in kind and repeat the behavior that receives positive reinforcement. That doesn’t mean that you blindly praise someone when they do something wrong. It simply means that if you take a positive approach towards managing your employees, you will most likely see positive results.

“If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it”

This statement means you should always speak in a positive manner, even under difficult circumstances. If you have something negative to say about an employee, don’t say it to others, because, 1) it will create a negative atmosphere, 2) it may paint a poor and unjustified impression of the employee in question, based on a supervisor’s moment of frustration, and 3) the employee will think that if you are saying something negative about one employee to others, what are you saying behind his back about him? The above statement does not mean you should not speak to employees who have performance and/or behavioral problems – you most certainly should. However, even under those circumstances, there is absolutely no reason why you cannot speak with the employee in a positive and professional manner.

“Give without ever expecting anything in return”

My mother believed that when you help people unconditionally, they will pay you back many times over and will often become your friends/allies for life. Most certainly, they will be willing to take the extra step on your behalf because you were willing to help them out in their time of trouble. The point here is that it doesn’t take much effort or cost to help a subordinate or coworker who is in need, as long as the help is legally, ethically, and morally appropriate. If you do this enough times, you will build an army of people who will be ready, willing, and able to help you out whenever the situation presents itself.

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About The Author

Stewart Liff is an HR, visual performance management and team development expert, and the president and CEO of the consulting company Stewart Liff & Associates. He is the author or co-author of seven books, including Managing Government Employees and A Team of Leaders.

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