5 Actions to Rise Above the Typical Government Worker Stereotype


A quick search in Google images for ‘government worker jokes’ sheds light on an unfortunate reality. The general stereotype is that government policies promote workers that produce mediocre work and workers; they work 9-5 and not a second more, they do their job and not an iota outside their job description, and they are content to collect their paycheck until they die or get their pension.

If you have higher aspirations than this, then take a few minutes to read 5 things you can do to excel in government and rise to the top.

A few things to note before getting into the actions:

  • If you’re looking for an easy or simple way to make people think you’re high performing this is not the article you’re looking for; the only way to be high performing is to do things that result in high performance.
  • I’ve read a lot of blogs and articles that focus on what not to do to improve productivity: don’t check emails too many times, work with earphones, don’t work on your personal time. These will help eliminate distractions but don’t necessarily mean that you’ll produce better work.
  • Productivity does not automatically equate to quality; increasing junk work will generate more junk work.
  • Know the difference between overachievement and reaching high achievements; you want to shine without overshadowing and it is tricky. Many blogs and articles are out there about there about this. The actions listed below are about producing high quality work and making yourself a valuable asset for your employer, co-workers, colleagues etc. More on overachieving: http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20140911-overachiever-forget-a-promotion
  • Finally, performance excellence is a result of a suite of interrelated habits, traits, actions, personal, experiences, knowledge, and time. It comes from the core of who you are which then drives you to make these actions into more than work, they become those certain habits you’ve heard so much about.

Without further adieu, here are the actions in no particular order as they are all related:

1. Think and act like you work for a corporation. The reality is that high performing government offices are performing more and more like private industry businesses. Traditional governments, just like the stereotype predicts, are often focused on getting the job done while private business is focused on continuous development and innovation to ever increase profitability.

  • Work beyond the 9-5. You might be able to split those 4 hours you spend watching television every day to maybe 2 hours on a work project or an online class, or learning a new app or software.
  • Be available after hours (carefully setting boundaries to protect your personal time). At 5pm on Friday and during lunches all government email comes to a screeching halt. Being available doesn’t mean responding to every single email that comes through, but if there’s an emergency or something on a first come first service basis, don’t miss the opportunity to show up front and center. You’ll also be the first one ready to tackle the big issues Monday morning if you’ve had a heads up.

2. Do not settle for the person that you are today. Continue to develop yourself personally and for your career.

  • Use an Independent Development Plan worksheet or some other personal action plan to reach short and long term goals.
  • Read books. This list of 75 includes all of my favorites; pick some that sound appealing to you: http://www.highexistence.com/links/view/75-books-to-boost-your-productivity-2/
  • Join a club or professional association.
  • Do some homework. There is soooooo much free material: webinars, You Tube, Online courses, these stinking blogs.

3. Help others and teach others. When you help others you build a connection with someone who can help you the next time you need a team. You might be thinking that having a skill no one else in your agency has is beneficial and you don’t want to share it because then you won’t be the go-to gal or guy anymore. Don’t think like that, put your ego aside. If you’re truly learning and growing you’re probably becoming the go-to in some other area, and can no longer be the go to in all areas. The persons you teach appreciate you and be more likely to help you when you need it. Additionally, just because you teach something to someone they’re not likely to find your same passion for it and pick it up to become the next expert.

4. Learn poise. A skillful combination of mastering public speaking and displaying emotional intelligence. This allows you to stay calm when everyone else is freaking out.

  • Don’t complain. What does this have to do with the quality of your work? It has everything to do with the delivery and acceptance of your work. Why put so much effort into the high quality work only to have it avoided because you’re labeled a hot head?
  • Poise also comes from managing your personal power, more from Dr. Linda Smith from the University of Maryland on that here: https://academy.govloop.com/lessons/lesson-2-accessing-your-personal-power-video-535/

5. Actively Manage your time. Doing all of these things and dipping into your personal time will require that you plan ahead and work effectively and stay organized. In order to manage time effectively you have to take time to manage your time.

  • Use LEAN methods at work.
  • Research, learn and use apps, templates, databases and other tools. Effectively utilizing tools in your day to day work can really make you efficient allowing for all that extra time you need to be more effective, to help others, to take a class, and to manage your schedule.
  • Delegate and work in teams, find other high performing people and find ways to work with them. Work with those people you taught all those great things to.

In summary, all of these things are about going above the day to day work and just getting the job done. I was at a Project Management Institute lunch and learn today and the speaker, Sarina Arcari, said, “Excellence always rises” and that’s what I’m talking about.

If you’re thinking, “OMG, is this chick crazy? Work overtime?!” Then government is probably a good place for you; for now. Governments are picking up the pace and you might find yourself way behind when you realize the race started without you.

Laura Thorne is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Bryan Conway JD, PMP

Think and act like you work for a corporation. Yes, this is huge! Pretend like you need your customers to stay in business, pretend like you have competition that wants to steal your profits and market share, and pretend like you could lose your job if you underperform. Have a private sector sense of urgency!

Laura Thorne

Hi Brian, I’m not sure ‘pretend’ is the right word but I get what you’re saying. You want to identify the proper customers and competitors in government, not claim that you don’t have any.

Steve Ressler

I like the phrase “have a sense of urgency.” Because we are talking high stakes – for example, every day a citizen doesn’t get the benefits they need or services that could help them – that’s affecting lives.