Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Not-So-Inconvenient Renewal, Episode II: Revenge of the Contrarian Thinker

Well, the last few weeks have been… hum… interesting to say the least. Indeed, I’ve met more challenges than what I expected with regards to release of the results of the Public Service Employee Survey (PSES) for my organization.

The first challenge came immediately after I circulated a preliminary analysis of the PSES where I compared the performance of my organization from 2005 to 2008. Very quickly, voices in my Department started to claim that "we can’t compare the results of the 2005 and 2008 surveys". So much in fact, that the direction provided to the managers was just short of instructing them not to compare the results. I found this most unfortunate, because the PSES provided a pretty detailed picture of the progress made by my organization and all the work that went into it, and now, some people almost seemed eager to sweep it all under the rug, as if it never happened. So much for performance management and the need to set measurable benchmarks!

The second challenge I faced was when I approached the Communications branch of my Department to find ways of sharing the story of the renewal experienced in my organization, thinking that it may be inspiring for managers to know that renewal is possible, and putting people first actually makes a big difference. Let’s just say that I didn’t exactly find the support I was hoping for, and I was literally stunned by the reasons I was given:
  • A link can be made with PS Renewal, and the Department is not the authority for PS Renewal and the PSES – the Clerk and the Chief HR Officer are. (Therefore the Department won’t authorize me to speak about our results on the PSES and our renewal story.)
  • We don’t want to draw any attention to any organization in particular. (So much for striving for excellence in the public service – instead, one should always try to reach for the lowest common denominator!)
  • The 2005 PSES results for my organization were so poor, that it may look bad on the Department. (But if we need to “renew”, isn’t it to change to something “better”? Because if that’s the case and if we end up with something “better”, we must at one point have started with something that was “worse” than what we have now…)
The third challenge came in the form of four requests I received to be removed from my mailing list in the days after I released “A Not-So-Inconvenient Renewal: What Happens When Managers Change the Way They Manage”. In itself, I have no problem with people asking me to be removed from my mailing list. But in this specific case, all four requests came from Executives of the public service. If anyone needs to pay a little attention to PS Renewal and the PSES, and how we can create better organization through improved people management, I would think it should be the 4000+ executives of the PS. Now I don’t have 4000 executives on my mailing list, but nevertheless, I thought four of them asking to be removed after receiving my document was four too many.

But before jumping to conclusions, I assumed for a moment that maybe their organizations were so well-run that they didn’t have anything to learn from our experience. So I tried to track down the PSES results for those four organizations and compare their numbers to ours. I could only identify one organization with certainty and get its PSES results for both 2005 and 2008, but happily it was also the organization for which the person who had written to me asking to be removed from my mailing list was the highest-ranking of the group: a CEO/President of a public service agency, who I assume is probably an EX-4, and most importantly, the person responsible for the entire organization!
The comparison is available here. Using the same methodology as I did in my previous analysis, I compiled the data in two tables:
  1. The 2005 and 2008 PSES results for my organization and this “undisclosed” organization.
  2. A direct comparison of the 2008 results between the two organizations.
Have a look at the numbers, and draw your own conclusions. Once again, the results speak for themselves. However, I will draw your attention to two questions in particular:
  • Q. 55. I believe that senior management has made progress toward resolving the issues raised in the 2005 Public Service Employee Survey.
  • Q. 54. I believe that senior management will try to resolve concerns raised in this survey.
It seems to me that these two all-encompassing questions provide a pretty good clue as to the kind of leadership we are likely to find in an organization, and should therefore be the first two questions managers consider if they take PS Renewal and the PSES seriously. So I invite you to do the same, and find out what are the PSES results to these two questions for your organization, and how it has progressed from 2005 to 2008.

By the way, if you happen to be the Clerk or the Chief HR Officer, and want to know who the four executives who asked to be removed from my mailing list are, feel free to give me a ring! ;-)


Colin McKay said...


I received your email as well - twice in rapid succession. I have an interest in PS renewal, so I wasn't very fussed about it.

As an executive, I have to point out that there are a number of other factors that play into PSES results, and these factors could be out of the control of individual executives.

I'm thinking of things like program review, reclassification exercises, centralized IT services ... The PSES is just one of a number of management tools and metrics used to judge performance.

Moving on: Any individual should have the right to contact the source of an email and ask to be removed from their list - especially if they never asked to be included. In a commercial situation, that is called spam.

They should not face false indignation for exercising that right.

More importantly, I don't quite understand how you think this sort of public shaming will encourage greater attention to your project.

If anything, your implied threat to "reveal" these executives to the Clerk or CHRO (if they express interest) will likely discourage civil servants - executives or not - from participating in your collective exercises.

Etienne Laliberté said...

Thanks for your comment, Colin. You are actually the second person to express similar concerns after my last post. The other person who took the time to write to me suggested that I actually should call the people who asked to be removed from my mailing list to find out the reason why. Good suggestion.

It is true that I'm "spamming" the people on my mailing list. I had never seriously considered the issue from that angle, until your mentioned it. I haven't asked these people to be on my mailing list; I specifically selected them for a reason. So yes, they deserve the right to be removed from the list, and as I said in the post, in itself, I don't have problem with that. What got my attention in this specific case was that EX actually constitute only a very small fraction of the people I sent the document to, but the entirety of the people who asked to be removed from my mailing list. Perhaps they have their priorities straight and that's what enable them to deliver on objectives, perhaps it is a sign of something else.

From a personal perspective, the pattern that I have observed is that a majority of PS managers don't care much for people management. Senior Executives in particular find themselves too busy to pay any real attention to this kind of thing. I would probably forfeit the issue altogether, if it wasn't for the fact that I have met and worked for a few managers and executives (including at the highest levels) in my short career who, for whatever reason, always managed to put people first AND delivered on other priorities as well.

So in light of your email, I am wondering whether I've been wrong to push for my agenda by sending a couple of emails per year to my mailing list, keeping in mind that if I didn't do so, most of the issues, documents and practices I want to share wouldn't even get out of my cubicle. And I assure you: I have received zero support within my department to share any of the stuff we have done in my organization. Yet, every time I send out a document or make a presentation, some people appreciate what to know what we are doing. So where do we find the balance?

To address the last concern express in the comment, I must mention that the "implied threat to "reveal" these executives to the Clerk or CHRO" was meant as joke, which stemmed from a meeting I had earlier in the day with a DM who was enquiring about what we have done in my organization. I do understand the privacy concerns in my statement, and I doubt I would share the info with anyone - including the Clerk and CHRO. At least, I haven't done so up until now.

I don't want to abdicate any responsibility for my last post - actually I take full ownership for what I wrote - but what I am learning from situation is that bloggers who operate operate on the fringe find themselves in a delicate spot. I don't believe my last post would have ever seen the day if the PS (or my Department) would officially endorse my blogging activity and set boundaries within which I can operate and be supported. If it was the case, I wouldn't have faced all the hurdles I discussed in my last post.

As most of you know, this is all "volunteer" work.



Jan van der Hoop said...

... well said, both of you. Colin, you are absolutely right; Etienne, you spoke through your apparent frustration and disappointment, and it's not your words but your emotions that must be taken in.

In my experience working both in and with organizations, the most common issue I run into is that managing people has become a lost art, in spite of the millions of training dollars we throw at the problem. That money is completely wasted in any organization that has fallen into the trap of loading their 'managers' down... over the last 20 years, managers have become managers of tasks, projects and things, at the expense of having the time (let alone the inclination) to manage their people.

Managers are held to task for missing a deadline or blowing a budget... but when's the last time you heard of a manager being taken to task for not giving meaningful performance feedback, not challenging an employee to be their best, or not creating a positive, engaging work environment?

Until organizations begin to quantify and take seriously the waste that results from mediocrity, apathy and disengagement... nothing much will change.

Dan said...


What I appreciate is your willingness to experiment and therefore to learn about how to create a meaningful dialogue in your environment. I literally went through a number of years when I felt -- hitting the walls like you are right now -- that all my work was for naught, that my efforts were futile. And then, luckily for me, I gave up trying to "crash through" and went back to being of help to those who wanted the help and were open to it. For sure there are still days -- and sometimes weeks -- when the pain of my own leading is there, rather than the sense of fulfillment, but I guess I've come to believe that's the nature of the deal; that's why it's so important to keep going, to find ways to connect, learn, and be authentic. Even without a major shift in others or a work culture, I've cultivated a sense of deep value for what I do. Whether or not that's perfectly reflected by the external environment is something else.

There's a story about the Dalai Lama and a man who became very interested in saving the planet from environmental disaster. The man happened to get a chance to ask the Dalai Lama "What's the best way to save the planet?" The Dalai Lama replied, "Not with anger!" This was such a provocative reply to the man that he set out to interview leaders in the environmental movement and what he found is that a great many of them were struggling with their own anger. So he began to offer retreats to talk about this very issue. In this way he connected with other leaders like himself and began to make a more tangible difference -- in saving the world.

I think your only obligation, given the reactions and feedback, is to really try to understand what these mirrors are telling you without dismissing or condemning them, without going too fast past them -- and without losing core principles. This is exactly the battle with and for self that we face: to know what's what, including our own shadows -- how the conflict plays within us -- and work straightaway from the resulting self-knowledge. I hope I don't sound too preachy about all this. I identify, and thus I'm talking to myself here, too, you understand.

I also want to tell you that I've much enjoyed your work and the risks you have taken to "put it out there." My wish is for many more people like you. I grew up in government (10 years working for a city government) and I have consulted extensively with county, state, and federal agencies.

Your work is a gift.

Best to you

KP said...

My initial reaction to your entry is genuine disappointment. I have been following the Contrarian Thinking for a few years and it is one of my favourite blogs. I've often been inspired and impressed by your commitment and provocative thinking and it has always come across as constructive and in good taste. But this entry rings differently. I was really surprised to see what I would call some “retaliation” in your approach to a simple request to be removed from a mailing list.

First, I’m surprised that you jumped to the conclusion that the reason these Executives don’t want to be on your e-mail list is because he/she is jealous or insecure that their own results won’t measure up to yours! This is really somewhat self-centered don’t you agree? If the person you “investigated” in order to prove your hypothesis is the CEO/President, don’t you think that he/she has some fairly significant issues to deal with other than reading regular marketing e-mails (a.k.a. spam). Do you really think that the CEO had time to first: read your results, second: pull up his/her organizations’ results for the same two years and then compare them, and third: conclude that continuing on your e-mail list would be exposing their organizations weaknesses? I really don’t think that this CEO’s world revolves around what Etienne is saying and doing. Have you given any thought to the possibility that they have access to expert resources, staff and perhaps the Clerk to guide them in their renewal efforts and that they don’t need the Contrarian Thinking blog and papers (shocking as it may be).

I’m also surprised at how adamant you are to use the results of your organizations’ PSES to “prove” that renewal has happened in your department (perhaps taking some of the credit for that no doubt). The survey is not intended to be empirical evidence as you seem to try to prove. The survey is intended as a benchmark, a guide for constructive discussion.

And finally, you said “from a personal perspective, the pattern that I have observed is that a majority of PS managers don't care much for people management. Senior Executives in particular find themselves too busy to pay any real attention to this kind of thing…” there is a difference between caring about something and being good at it and I have seen both positive and negative evidence of caring and doing. This is no different from the private sector and only shows that you have narrow insight into the efforts and character of the people running our public service (which concerns me since you are pitching yourself as an expert on it).

In conclusion, your comments are ironic since YOU have taken up someone else’s cause of driving public service renewal….. and whose idea was that anyway? Oh yeah, The Clerks, the CHRO, and every DM who was given HR and people management responsibility.

So I suggest Etienne, with all due respect, that you get down from your high horse and put things in perspective. Respectfully yours, @DGtweets

Etienne Laliberté said...

The comments I received after my last posts are a good reality check for me, especially the one telling me to "get down from my high horse" and reminding me that the world doesn't revolve around what Etienne is saying and doing. Quite frankly, I'm humbled by it.

The only thing I will respond to is that renewal in my organization had actually begun at least a year or a year-and-half before the announcement of PS Renewal by the Clerk, just as the ideas contained in "An Inconvenient Renewal" had all been drafted long before the release of the initial PS Renewal action plan.

BTW, I don't consider myself an expert on renewal or people-management; just someone who was in the right organization, at the right time, with the right Director, managers, employees, union, etc. Good people management is not an area of expertise as much as a theme that I value and a cause that I have embraced and made my top priority.

There's no question that the events of the last few months (of which I have only shared a small portion here on my blog - but there are much deeper issues that wouldn't be proper to discuss here) have been wearing down on me. I take it as a reminder that it is not healthy to harbor that much frustration, and it's probably a good time to take a break.

I'm now debating whether I should leave my last post there, edit it, re-write it in light of the comments I have received, or remove it altogether. I'm open to all three options. Your thoughts?

Take the poll in the side-bar.

Dan said...


My vote would be for you to leave the post as it is, but write another one further exploring your own reactions and learning.

KP said...

You said "The only thing I will respond to is that renewal in my organization had actually begun at least a year or a year-and-half before the announcement of PS Renewal by the Clerk, just as the ideas contained in "An Inconvenient Renewal" had all been drafted long before the release of the initial PS Renewal action plan."

So thanks for clearing that up Etienne, here I was thinking that renewal was a brand new idea! But seriously, I have no doubt that your thinking and foresight goes back several does the thinking and foresight of thousands of others who want change (and hats off to those who have succeeded in continuously making change in government over the years. Yes! Believe it or not, the public service has made positive change over the years!).

And isn't it "convenient" that the Clerk was the one who took a stand and gave us all a renewal coat tail to ride on. I am hoping that you will think twice before concluding that the majority of senior executives don't care about people management...because clearly they do, starting at the very top. @DGtweets

Jeff said...

I agree with Dan (and have voted accordingly).

You said what you said. People responded to what you said. You should keep the record of that. Follow up with another post and let people respond to that with all of the context.


Doug said...

Etienne - I'd like to be removed from your list.


just kidding.

Stick in there bud - your org, I'm sure, needs you.
Sorry I didn't give my feedback on it, but I was looking at the ranking while in a PSES all-staff review at my organisation, and it was most helpful

Doug said...

PS I would edit it. Those who have it in original form or who can get it, should, and are worthwhile adversaries, supporters or common-joes who deserve to get it. You deserve to have the post reflect your best judgment and thoughts. Your blog deserves it too. Other posts maintain value of archive and original content.

I dabble with the same issue (edito or not? Remove or not?) all the time with my own blog.

Mike Kujawski said...

Etienne, I would definitely leave everything as is and express any new thoughts in a new blog post. If you get into the habit of editing old posts to reflect a new opinion, it will change the way you write over time. Let the conversation evolve on it's own...

Great work and great courage on your part. I have made the mistake of letting too much emotion get into my writing as well (we all do once in a while). At the end of the day passion is what clearly drives your writing. It's good for your readers to see that.

Asif Devji said...

The sentiment that PS managers do a less than stellar job of people management is (as I see it) widely held though seldom publicly expressed by employees.

The available avenue for public expression of employee satisfaction is the PSES.

I agree with Etienne that two questions in particular on the survey can give good indicators as to employee perceptions of people management:

* Q. 55. I believe that senior management has made progress toward resolving the issues raised in the 2005 Public Service Employee Survey.
* Q. 54. I believe that senior management will try to resolve concerns raised in this survey.

I would add a third indicator: employee participation rate in the survey -- valued employees never miss an opportunity to brag about their bosses.

In his post, Etienne talks about challenges he's facing publicizing the success of 'renewal' management practices. This is an issue worth considering.

If the culture is too risk averse to permit negative comparisons, and if PS renewal for managers means (from Etienne's next post):

You must be open to new and challenging ideas. You must be willing to have difficult conversations with employees. You must practice truth-telling. You must make unpopular decisions. You must welcome criticism. And you must apologize to employees and be held accountable for your missteps.

...then can renewal in this context really be accomplished?