Best employees = overworked?

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This topic contains 33 replies, has 21 voices, and was last updated by  Mark Hammer 8 years, 2 months ago.

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  • #160575

    Steve Ressler

    Recently I was talking to a government innovator and I asked him the biggest challenge.

    He mentioned a common problem I’ve heard – the best and most creative/ innovative people often get overburdened with too much to do (day jobs plus all the special projects)

    So how do we get more folks involved in innovation and change in government? How do we make sure we don’t burn out the innovators?

  • #160641

    Mark Hammer

    I don’t know if you’ve ever been a member of a small congregation, Steve, but I’ve witnessed it in a few and there is an interestng pattern. When the congregation is small enough, everybody shares the load and volunteers for everything; simply because they have to or else nothing will ever get done. Once the congregation hits a critical mass, people starts getting sorted into “the volunteerers”, and “everybody else”. The congregation starts assuming there will be these specialists who attend to “all that stuff”, and assume their role is to pay membership dues and show up once in a while.

    Workplaces can be the same way, in that individuals gradually get accorded roles. In a humorous thread we had here a few months ago about preferred workplace superhero names, I joshingly said I wanted to be “the guy”. As in “Go speak to Hammer. He’s…the guy”. People do become the designated whatever that everyone trusts to carry out a certain category of task, and pretty soon nobody else gets asked. The workplace gets divided into those that do the critical things, and everybody else.

    It generalizes to other things too. In a terrific paper about “barriers to knowledge-sharing”, that I regularly refer to, the authors note that one of the many barriers is the perception by a staff member that they are not the appropriate source of some category of knowledge, hence they do not share. So the informal designation of people goes beyond doing, into knowing and communicating as well.

    I guess what this means is that one of the challenges is to keep people from getting classified into such categories, such that staff perceive the various duties as shareable. It wouldn’t be out of keeping to ask staff to indicate what they’d like to get more competence in, and then have other staff suggest level-appropriate tasks/assignments to bootstrap that competence in unit meetings. As in “X has said they would really like to know more about such-and-such. Of the things we have coming up in the workplan what do you folks think would be a good assignment/file for doing that? Hopefully one that stretches them without making lie awake at night worrying if they can pull it off.”

    Make them ALL your “best” employees, and you won’t have to worry about any of them being overworked.

  • #160639

    Agree with Mark re: the comment about small congregations. Small decentralized field office structures tend to be more effective in my view than centralized headquarters structures for this very reason – power and responsibility are both distributed and people feel they must contribute.

    Separately another comment – “innovators” is an overused term. To me what we’re talking about is really the “hard workers.”

    In my experience workplace sorts out like the below.

    So the question is – how do you get organizational leadership to support the hard workers and relieve them (since they will not complain), hold the non-hardworking types accountable, and prevent the malcontents from getting in their way?



    –The top three groups are not a burnout risk because they love the game–

    5% – Leaders – 24/7 at the helm

    10% – Innovators – support the leaders in working smarter not harder

    10% – Politicians – born shmoozers who socialize ideas, influence people, network, etc.

    25% – Pure Hard Workers – This group IS A HUGE BURNOUT RISK take responsibility for the work but can’t implement greater efficiency

    45% – Just Hanging Around – Don’t really care either way, sort of do what they’re told but don’t add much value

    5% – Pure Poison – Ruin it for everybody else due to constant complaining, stirring up trouble, interfering with others’ work, etc.

  • #160637

    Peter Sperry

    I think you have nailed the descriptions and distribution exactly!!! The scary aspect of it is that only 40 to 50 percent of the organization is adding value. Is it any wonder that outside stakeholders (stockholders for corporations and voters for government) wonder why these people are on the payroll?

  • #160635

    Steve Ressler

    Good distinction – I like the breakdown. I think part of 25% problem as well is they do most of the work but don’t get much credit – just get thrown on to the next project

  • #160633

    Carol Davison

    Funny story: They say that 20% of the church, or presumably any other organizaiton, does 80% of the work. As Sunday School superintendent I only called people who filled out forms saying they were interested in volunterring in my ministry. When I needed a substitiute teacher I called one parent who said “I’ll do it if no one else will.” I replied “We have 2,000 members. How many would you like to call before I get back with you?” In response to Sunday School Recruiting, another woman said “I never want to teach Sunday School. You never need to call me back regarding that but I will substitue.” I told her how delighted I was to receive a straight answer, and still remember her telling me that, and did use her as a substitue. The point is some people don’t even have the sense of responsibility to say no, or get out of the way so you can get someone to help you achieve the work.

  • #160631

    Deb Green

    I’m not sure it’s only the innovators – but as Mark said – the “go to” people. I’ve seen Special Project folks get burned out because they’re running hot all the time. And, as Carol points out – the best self preservation answer is often “no”.

    How do we get more folks involved? It starts by having those already motivated “go to” folks comfortable asking for help. Those that self-identify to help will often be ones who want to make something happen. Give them work. Coach them, mentor them. Give them the hard stuff, not the busy work. Praise them in public for the job well done. If it’s done right, now you’ll have more hands to help with the work, ’cause you know it’ll keep coming at you!

  • #160629

    Right on, Dannielle. Do you think there’s any hope of converting the “bottom” 50%?

  • #160627

    Ha – I should have read down the page more…you gave me my answer, Deb. 🙂

    P.S. Got any concrete examples of this approach working?

  • #160625

    Mark Hammer

    1) Use proper assessment & selection tools/methods and don’t hire them in the first place.

    2) Everybody has them, and all too frequently they weren’t that way when they were hired. So it is partly an issue of progressive dis-engagement of staff. Most of the time we “grew” the 45% ourselves. What you’re suggesting, Andrew, is converting them back to what they were when we hired them.

    3) Constructive, proactive, and thoughtful delegation. People rarely come banging on your door begging for more work. Understandably, managers want to assure success, so they delegate in a fashion that they believe stands the highest probability of yielding it….at the level of individual tasks. At the level of overall work plan, it ends up piling on too much to some and squandering others.

    4) THAT’S why you have to constantly work on staff development. If your only capacity to get certain things done lies with a few select individuals, you’re screwed if they get another job, retire, get sick/injured, or otherwise get removed from the equation.

  • #160623

    Kanika Tolver

    Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas that are accepted by markets, governments, and society.

    1. Allow your employees to have creative control.

    2. Allow employees to work in a comfortable workplace or allow them to telework so they can get these special projects done.

    3. Give the creative projects to the innovators on your team, don’t give to your weakest link employee.

    4. Develop realistic and flexible deadlines for your innovators. Innovation takes time, it can’t be rushed.

    5. Leaders and managers need to stop micro managing creative projects.

    Or just be a Corporate REBEL and innovator at your own expense. That’s what I do LOL!

    Kanika Tolver

    Follow me on twitter @CareerDropout

  • #160621

    Encourage your best/most productive employees to UNPLUG. I have seen more than one person (Boomer, Gen X and Millennial) burn out or get fed up because all they did was work. It is important to work hard … but I think it is just as important to take the (occasional) vacation or long weekend. With technology invading every aspect of our lives, I think the unplugged vacation has become all that much more important.

  • #160619

    Deb Green

    Couldn’t agree more Dorothy. I love going camping in a state park in Virginia off the beaten track because there’s NO cell phone signal there. None. Sorry. No updates, no email, no anything but vacation 🙂

  • #160617

    Deb Green

    I have to say I learned the hard way Andy. Not because I got burned out (that’s a story for another post!), but because other people were drawn or assigned to the program I manage and I learned to listen. Mostly because their ideas were fabulous, insightful, or really pointed out a gap that we hadn’t foreseen.

    With much humility (and a slightly bruised ego), I learned the more I opened sessions and asked people to help fill in the blanks, there was this group that kept coming and gave great insight on where to take the program – – how to make it bloom and keep giving fruit. They learned the program, helped build the process and governance structure, and took it back to their organizations saying “this is going to work” because, I like to think, they were on the ground floor helping lay that foundation. If they’d not been as involved in laying that sub floor, who knows if they’d wanted to help hang drywall. This really led to brand ambassadorship as a result. We’re always on the lookout for folks who want to be brand ambassadors. You never know what skill set is going to walk through the front door and ask to join the team.

    Also, we partner with an internal program for rising GS-12s through GS-14s/equivalents. One of their program requirements is developmental experience in areas they want to address on their individual leadership development profile. We’re pretty flexible to accommodate what they’re looking to accomplish. Want to shadow someone? We can make that happen. Want to do a 90 day detail learning how the agency works and what the big fish the agency’s wrestling with? We can do that too, or anything else somewhere in between. One of our next projects: Interdepartmental Detail Vacancy!

  • #160615

    I also randomly just came across this infographic, which I think has some pretty powerful suggestions as to how to identify and avoid burnout:

  • #160613

    Part of this stems from governments having to layoff staff. There’s not a whole much you can do about balancing workload when you have less hands to do it with.

    Plus when the government does want to hire, it can’t do it fast enough. The VA and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association are going at it because of lack of staff at the VA. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of IAVA)

    If it takes months to take on a new hire, how many innovators does government lose when they go on to other jobs? Obviously, I don’t have the stats on this by I’d be interested to hear opinions about it.

  • #160611

    Corey McCarren

    Great infographic, Dorothy. I can definitely relate to the sleep thing. Right now I tend to sleep less than I really should, so I designate Wednesday to be the night that I reenergize and force myself for a full eight hours which really keeps me going.

  • #160609

    Steve Ressler

    Interesting – as they say, 80/20 rule – the Pareto Principle to life –

    The Pareto principle (also known as the 80–20 rule, the law of the vital few, and the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.[1][2]

  • #160607

    The 5% poison – no. They should be removed from the workplace until they can reverse course.

    The 45% just hanging around types – divide and conquer – don’t let them continue to be like a blob of Jell-O blocking progress. Use short-term rewards, recognition, etc. as incentive:

    * There are opinion leaders in this group who can be re-labeled and retrained as leaders.

    * There are those who can be “reprogrammed” if you remove them physically and relationally from bad influences, give them occupational training/technical training, and immerse them into a productive work group where they have a specific function.

    * There are those with whom you have to dig a little deeper to find the skill set and motivation, empower them and they can do great things.

    * Some people just kind of “are who they are,” but that stability in itself can be useful.

    And for everyone there ought to be internal social collaboration tools, opportunities to join and lead volunteer groups, etc. Also fitness groups. Also prayer services or meditation – for a particular faith, interfaith, or even just a quiet room that one person at a time can use.

    It’s the Google concept: The more you can do to engage people physically, emotionally and spiritually in the workplace, the more productive they will be.

    Just some ideas.

  • #160605

    Peter Sperry

    These sound like great ideas but possibly expensive to implement. How do we explain to the taxpayer why we are spending major dollars rehabilitating 45% of our workforce during a down economy when there are more than enough eager motivated unemployed professionals that could take there place tomorrow. At what point does the 45% recognize the need to start providing value if only out of self preservation?

  • #160603

    Heather Richtfort

    Two things:

    • Train the supervisors (then keep at them) to start actively performance managing the under-performers to either improve or leave.
    • Train the supervisors how to hire.

    This should, in the long run, make for a larger pool of talented individuals amonst whom to spread the work out. I don’t think these are necessarily limited to just supervisors inside the government, but there are some lingering cultural barriers (particularly to the first item).

  • #160601

    Mark Hammer

    1) I agree. A significant share of managers don’t know how to hire. Some of that is because they don’t know what they need or know in a vague way but can’t articulate it, and some of it is because of “that special universe” of federal hiring regulations and policies that can impede optimal hiring.

    2) Even when they don’t know how to hire optimally, or the “system” slows hiring down enough that you miss out on your first choice, most hires come in at a reasonable second-best choice. Which tells me that when any supervisor has subordinates that are “underperforming”, it’s the supervisor themselves that is underperforming. Much like “For Dummies…” books, whose title is predicated on an assumption that the fault is always with the learner and never attributable to bad teaching/explanation, we wantonly attribute lower performance in employees to a character or competence flaw in the employee and not to the inability or unwillingness of the supervisor to delegate work in a manner that fosters both motivation and staff development. Humans are complicated, but they’re not that hard to motivate.

    I think the overarching challenge here, alluded to by many of the posters, is that of an often insidious “siphoning” of work to the people the supervisor has come to trust and view as “the logical choice” for those tasks. Human development specialists and evolutionary biologists like to talk in terms of “canalization”, whereby some outcome may not be deliberately “engineered” but relatively predictable circumstances make that outcome occur with a fair degree of reliability. The supervisor does not intend for all work of any criticality to be heaped on one or more specific employees; it just sort of ends up that way through unconscious practices. The challenge for the supervisor/manager is to recognize those otherwise unconscious practices, plan to avoid them, and plan for a more broadly-developed workforce.

  • #160599

    One thing I noticed missing from this conversation is the responsibility of the person the work is piled on to step up and say he or she needs help. If you are the one getting all the work from your supervisor, I would hope you would have the courage to step up and ask for your team members’ help. Your supervisor may have to do the reassignment, but by asking you are showing leadership ability. If the over-burdened worker went so far as to suggest individuals who would be able to assist I would think that person would see a promotion is his or her future.

  • #160597

    Julian Scadden

    Great posts, I’d love to go in-depth on this but I have to get back to my daily reports, just wrapped up the monthly and have two fires that need attention right now before I start the new implementation project for the commission, then on to the new division initiative programs “someone” has to oversee – or they never get done 😉 Have a great day guys!

  • #160595

    Jerry Rhoads

    My thoughts are 1. It is a a management problem 2. Start fixing management, and 3. The new management team needs to identify the poison and non-producers and level set their organization.

  • #160593

    Chris Cairns

    Absolutely agree.

  • #160591

    Corey McCarren

    I can tell you that it didn’t take me long to be turned off to the federal hiring process when it was so much quicker to apply and interview in the private sector.

  • #160589

    The investment in staff development provides ROI in the form of reduced turnover, higher productivity, greater retention of institutional knowledge, innovation.

    We could save money on this function by preventing fires rather than constantly fighting them – to Mark’s point.

    For example here are 10 things guaranteed to create the kind of dissension that results in disengagement:

    1. Lack of clear direction from leadership

    2. Uneven enforcement of the rules, or no enforcement, or heavy-handed mess

    3. Sending people to do a difficult job, then failing to back them up

    4. Inconsistent or contradictory messaging

    5. Field-HQ divide

    6. Tech adoption without training

    7. Abrupt canceling of staff leave

    8. Disagreement with policy but no outlet to discuss

    9. Physical discomfort with office – lack of accommodation to work style

    10. Failure to bring people together to celebrate, mourn, crash on a project – everyone is a balloon adrift in the sky

  • #160587

    Earl Rice

    I have to agree that we grew the 50% or 40%, or whatever percent it is.

    I have to throw this axiom in from 30 years ago (and it applies now as much as it did 30 years ago). Murphy’s Law….you all remember Murphy?…but it goes like this from a customer’s perspective: Find that pocket of competence [10%] in an organization that gets the job done, and then exploit that pocket to the maximum [until they burn out or leave, then you find another pocket of competence].

    And that is a lot of what we are seeing! Only rather than it is coming from the managers, not the customers. Folks get in the 10% after they gain full competency in their field and give 110% for a while (measured in years). But you can only do that for so long before you burn out. And then one way or another become part the 40% that are there and do what they are told, no more, and no less (it’s called falling into stagnation, some times as self preservation). There are ways to get out of this cycle, by moving around or through promotions. However this can cause red flags. Only 40% of the Government employees have served in more than one Agency. Then it really drops to the area of 10% that have been in 3. And supervisors are suspicious of people that have been contaminated by other agencies and ideas.

    But the real question is what happened to cause them go get into the 40%? When was it that it occurred? When was it that they decided being the “go to it guy” just wasn’t worth the head aches and the heart breaks? (And the following are real instances I have observed!) Was it the time they were admonished when they tried to do too much for everyone else, and their work slacked off? Was it the time they were passed over for a promotion for the third or fourth time and just decided it wasn’t worth it anymore? Was it the time they got a slightly above average rating, and then found out that a lazy coworker with an IQ in the double digits that contributes little to nothing to the organization, but makes sure to drive the boss everywhere they want to go and buys them drinks all the time at organizational gatherings got the highest possible rating plus a hefty bonus? Was it when they were pushed so hard, that it started to affect their home life, and it became a shamble? Or, when they got that supervisor that scores an A in politics, but couldn’t poor water out of a boot with the instruction written under the heel? And let’s not forget that manager with the leadership style resembling a third world half crazed absolute egotistic despot of a micromanaging dictator? Or, worse, the one that can’t make a decision, procrastinates on everything, and is very good at manipulating the politics game so they can claim all the glory if their employees succeed, or push all the blame down if they fail (I call these the Teflon Dons, that talk a good storm, really put forth the gee whiz ideas, sound good, but really do nothing to support their employees and are like cotton candy, all hot air an spin).

    If you really go into it, you will find some defining moment or time that caused each of the employees to be in that 40%. I have asked many Federal Government employees what they want right now, and get the answer of “to just make it through the next 5 or 6 years [or whatever number of years] so I can retire”. Many of the responders here are young, or at least look young from the photos. And no doubt they fall into that 10%, for now anyway. But the question is when will they hit that supervisor that will provide that defining moment that will cause them to call it quits and leave that 10%. And, regrettably, we all run into them way more often in Government Service than we are willing to admit. And often we can’t get away from them fast enough to keep them from doing real harm to either our perspective towards work or our careers. And it only takes one to get an employee, or group of employees, into that 40%. Now, if you are a good manager and come in behind one of these, how do you fix it? That is the real question. Because you are talking about a climate change, not just quick fix and giving a few rewards here and there. It can take years to fix what a bad manager can do in just one or two.

  • #160585

    Mark Hammer

    Which is why I like to refer to what others call “employee engagement” as “merit maintenance” – keeping alive exactly what it was you hired them for in the first place.

  • #160583

    Lori Bills

    Great comments! I especially agree with the one statement about “There are those that can be reprogrammed….

  • #160581

    Marian Henderson

    Earl – In my 12 years in state government I have run in to a few of the managers that you describe above. In the event that I have had to work for them, I am mindful to over-communicate about everything and also to learn how to deal with their personality type while maintaining my own healthy boundaries. (Sounds like psycho-babble, doesn’t it?) What I mean is that I’m willing to alter my style and avenues of communication in order to have a good working relationship with the difficult manager/supervisor. I have seen the wake of destruction that they can leave in an agency by pushing people in to the 40%. I do my best to encourage those who are getting burned out or picked on so that they don’t throw in the towel & leave the 10%. Stick together!

  • #160579

    Roseann Julien

    It’s interesting to read this comment, as I just had this interaction last week. I had a number of things piled on me which were all labeled “high priority”. I spoke to my manager about it and suggested someone else to assist. The answer: “well, there just aren’t enough people in the group, and unfortunately if I gave it to the other person, I know it won’t get done as quickly, if it gets done at all.”

    We definitely have a resource issue, but this answer was completely uninspiring. I want to do my best work, but if nobody else will be held accountable then where’s the incentive to keep performing at high levels?

  • #160577

    Mark Sullivan

    Just to throw another idea into the mix, perhaps the challenge is not in the people, but in the systems of work. As Ken Miller argues, upwards of 80% of our work us not value added effort.

    (for more info see Ken’s blog post at )

    That is to say 80% ofthe labor that goes in does not add value from the customer’s perspective, and both employees and managers know it. If that’s true, efforts ‘free’ superstars or re-engage disaffected workers might just be spinning our wheels. Perhaps we should first focus on working out the kinks in our pipes, and then focus on our people.

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