Government workers get a bad rap and it seems to be getting worse. I’d like to give you something to think about the next time you’re in line at the Motor Vehicle Registry, applying for Social Security or just picking up your mail.
In my work as a consultant, I have helped organizations in both the public and private sectors. Unfortunately, I often hear rumblings of disgust about the people who work in government as well as government itself.
Government Workers vs. Private Sector Workers
I was talking with someone in the private sector about a successful training exercise we used in a government organization. I mentioned that the exercise was well received and effective in showing the power of process improvement. His response was, “Well, we are much smarter than government workers, so I’m not sure we would get the same thing out of it.” I looked at him with a prolonged stare, waiting to see if he was joking, but he wasn’t. I asked, “So, you really believe that private sector workers are smarter than government workers?” He said, “Yes.”
“Well, we are much smarter than government workers, so I’m not sure we would get the same thing out of it.”
We then got into a philosophical discussion with my argument including some of the following threads. “Let’s really consider this type of thinking. If this is true, then there must be a very sophisticated filtering and selection process that all government agencies use in their hiring process to find the dumbest, laziest workers in the country. Is that what you’re saying?”
A Fundamental (Attribution) Error in This Thinking
Okay, maybe I was being a bit harsh. Before I start to push back, let me take a breath, give him the benefit of the doubt, and shift to a different perspective. This private sector person is probably suffering from an inherent viewpoint that is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error.
This private sector person is probably suffering from an inherent viewpoint that is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error.
The Fundamental Attribution Error is the tendency to blame people because of who they are, rather than the situation they are in. It’s our tendency to think that there must be something fundamentally wrong with a person’s character instead of seeing that a particular issue might be due to the situation they are in. In this case, it means blaming government workers for the bureaucracy of government. The Fundamental Attribution Error phenomenon is discussed more in the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath.
“What a Jerk!”
Let me share a more familiar example that demonstrates the Fundamental Attribution Error in action. Say you are in your car, driving down the freeway and suddenly someone passes you in a speedy rush. What are your immediate thoughts about about the other driver? In your head, do you say, “What a jerk!” or maybe you say it out loud!
Or, do you pause for a moment and think, “Gosh, I wonder what is happening in that person’s life right now that is causing them to act that way?” My guess is that many of us would do the former…and blame the person’s character.
What if we reversed the situation? Say it’s you that’s rushing and running late. You’d justifiably say, “Well, I have to rush because I’m doing something really important.” Or something related to the situation you are in at that moment, not a character judgment about yourself.
Seeing Government Workers With New Eyes
The Fundamental Attribution Error is why we often blame the people instead of the process. We automatically blame government workers for the slow, overly bureaucratic cycle times rather than see workers as victims of their environment, situation or process.
We automatically blame government workers for the slow, overly bureaucratic cycle times
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some pretty smart, passionate, purpose-driven people in government. There are lots of government employees with law degrees, accounting degrees, PhD’s and MBA’s that choose to work in government.
Let’s start focusing on government processes and stop blaming government workers for “not being smart enough.”
A Healthy Example
It can be hard to believe that processes might really be the problem, so let me provide another example that supports that perspective. Let’s look at healthcare.
Arguably, healthcare has some of the smartest, most highly educated people…doctors, and nurses, and others with specialized degrees. Healthcare also has the best and latest technology available unlike many organizations that cannot afford it.
In addition, mistakes in healthcare are high risk. When an error is made, people can die. Unlike government, where your permit or driver’s license might be late, you’re not physically harmed due to an error. Given the high stakes, healthcare should be near perfect in execution, yes? Are they?
When an error is made, people can die. Unlike government, where your permit or driver’s license might be late, you’re not physically harmed due to an error.
Have you ever encountered process issues in healthcare? Have you seen cases where incorrect or missing information led to mistakes? Personally, I’ve have seen all kinds of healthcare defects.
At one point my mother was scheduled for brain surgery. My assumption was that such a serious operation would receive the utmost care. But while visiting with her before the surgery, we discovered that she had the wrong wristband – it had someone else’s name on it! Yikes!
As an industry, healthcare has more resources at their disposal than most industries, but their processes are still broken, and broken healthcare processes have a significant negative impact on people’s well being.
Use the Golden Rule
So, the next time you are frustrated with a government process, don’t take it out on the worker or judge their character. Be nice to government employees because there are good, smart, caring people in government and they are not always appreciated for the work they do. Let’s share more the love with them (and every worker we encounter) by offering our patience, support and kindness!
Public Service Recognition Week is the first week in May. Celebrate government workers and all those in public service that week. They deserve it.