FDR famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” I have never been sure of exactly what he meant by that. It is not true, but it sounds clever. Fearing fear sounds like a never-ending circle, which is how it feels to work in the bureaucracy. I remember going to training where they talked about how we needed to drive out fear, or else bad things would continue to happen. What exactly we were so fearful of? It was not that we would be fired. In government, you might be more likely to be hit by a meteorite than to be fired, but fear is rampant anyway. In a private company you can be fired “at will”, and yet when I talk with my friends who work in the private sector, they do not talk about a work environment dominated by fear.
I recall working on a presentation on improving our planning and construction programs that began with past failures. Our boss agreed that everything we said was true, but she had us take out the most glaring failures. She told us that if presentations with negative information were seen by the very top of the Department and Congress, they might conclude that VA had serious problems. To which we said, well, we think they know we have problems—how do we fix problems we cannot talk about? Management saw our work as a potential problem because their perspective was quite different than ours. Top management was very aware that the White House and the Congress routinely use internal VA problems for political purposes. Someone in one or the other of the two political parties can almost always see a way to bash the other party when something in government goes wrong. An experienced government manager knows that the “help” the White House and Congress may provide may not actually help solve the problem, and may well make it worse since the White House and Congress frequently take no responsibility for the unintended consequences of previous laws and regulations that may have caused the problems in the first place. Once a top VA official knows that some of his underlings are naively idealistic, he has an additional fear: what if these well-meaning employees succeed in getting their facts to someone in Congress or the media who will use them to build their career and undermine VA while thinking they are helping? The presentation we were working on contained the truth, but it generated fear in us, and in management.
Since government workers often occupy positions for many years, it can be hard for a new manager to be able to work around employees who remain loyal to the ideas of the previous manager. A new manager naturally wants to surround himself with “his” team. If some of the existing support staff are truly substandard employees, the new manager may be able to remove them. However, if the existing support employees are qualified for their positions, and meet or exceed their performance standards, the new manager must either try to bend them to his way of doing things, or he must find ways to force them out. One of the ways that the new manager can get some vacancies is to become a stickler for the rules in order to start some disciplinary actions. The fact that it is hard to fire someone does not make the employee facing disciplinary action any less fearful. If anything, the long and tedious process is itself a cruel punishment. Whether guilty or innocent, an employee charged with an offense is often set-aside in the organization and is tainted for years even if innocence is eventually proven. When faced with the threat of potential disciplinary action, many employees will look for another position and move. Others who stay are sometimes moved to a “Special Projects” position carved out of some department with a vacancy. This way of clearing out the old staff by using disciplinary actions and dead-end transfers is extremely inefficient, and feared by employees. Fear sets in whenever a new manager takes over.
In response to a big problem of some kind a few years back, leadership decided that all employees should be trained in the nuances of the issue. I do not recall what the issue was, but it was of little relevance to most employees. Leadership decided that the best way to document that everyone understood the issues would be to require all employees to take an on-line course. The course required each employee to read a lot of material. I was a supervisor and was told that I was to make sure I allowed everyone time to take the course even though we all knew it was not relevant to our jobs, and that it would take several hours to complete. One of my employees told me that he had hit return a zillion times to get through the document. He had the entire thing completed and documented in a few minutes. Another of my employees told me it took him several hours to read every page and complete the course. The first employee did what was right as far as I was concerned. The second employee wasted a lot of time reading irrelevant stuff, but he had done exactly what management had officially told us to do. I could have taken disciplinary action against the first employee for not reading all of the material. However, this employee is the kind of person you want working for you—except he probably should not have told me that he did not actually read any of the material. Management hoped that employees would not spend a lot of time on the course, but they could not say so. The best employees realized management’s intent, and understood why management directed employees to do the opposite of what they really hoped they would do. Many employees resented having to make a choice between doing literally what was asked, and doing what management hoped. They wondered why management could not stand up to whatever was driving the requirement. Over time, as more and more of these kinds of things happened, employees lost respect for management, and become more and more cynical, and fearful of the consequences if they guessed wrong on what management really expected. Eventually, the first employee, an excellent worker, left government service.
FDR’s famous statement is wrong, but it sums up the government work environment. Government employees do fear fear. This is unnatural. In our normal lives we have nothing to fear except for what will happen if we do not do the right thing. Deep down inside, no mentally sound person feels good about doing something that is wrong. This is true for all people. In government employees can be punished for trying to do the right thing, which makes fearing fear an inherent part of the work environment. Fear in the government workplace is a direct result of putting positions, metrics, and rules ahead of doing the right thing.
As I was completing this post, I got a call from a fellow VA retiree, I’ll call him RB. He mentioned that the young guy who took over his position after he retired called him and said that he was facing disciplinary action. He asked for the name of RB’s lawyer, an expert at defending federal employees from disciplinary actions. (RB and I both faced false disciplinary actions during our VA careers. We hired attorneys, and eventually won back our positions and pay.) The young guy who replaced RB trained under us early in his career and is an excellent employee. We agreed he would eventually win his case, but the fear of fear will continue unabated.
“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” 1 John 4:18 NASB