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Executive Brownout - Don’t Let It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue!

January 26 2015 - by Joan H. Underwood, CLP's Regional Project Manager

Feeling BlueAbout six years ago, when I told friends and colleagues that I was going to be leaving what most would consider a great job in the private sector to take up a full-time position in the public sector, there were more than a few who thought that I had lost my mind. While some persons focused on the significant loss of income, far more were concerned about the organizational culture and the prevailing work ethic and how I would adjust/survive in that environment. 

In your country, as in mine, you’ve probably heard (if not, propagated them yourself…) the jokes and snide remarks about public servants and their lack of productivity, slavish adherence to rules (some of which are hopelessly outdated…) and endemic apathy.  You may even know stories (including autobiographical ones…) of bright, ambitious, patriotic young people who have joined the civil service motivated by a strong desire to make a contribution to nation-building only to have the enthusiasm beaten out of them – figuratively speaking of course!  

We know that, for the most part, the salaries in the public sector are lower than those associated with positions of comparable authority or scope in the private sector.  Despite that fact, for reasons that differ from country to country and from person to person, young (and not so young), qualified men and women throughout the Caribbean choose to join the public service every year.  As senior public servants, many of you see them come into the system; they report to you, and you feel a sense of responsibility for preserving their enthusiasm, commitment to serve and desire to contribute to nation building. 

tired-at-PCNonetheless, you may be apprehensive as time and experience have taught you that over the years that you will see their eagerness and passion wane as their brown eyes turn blue with the realization that it really isn’t that easy to make a difference in the unwieldly bureaucracy that is Government.  And you are not surprised when over time you lose many of them to the private sector or to migration.  In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Michael Kibler defined executive brownout as the situation which occurs over time when high-performing people lose their passion for work and their commitment to the organization. 

CLP’s Leadership Development Programme encourages public sector leaders to focus on things that they can influence and/or control.  We see that as being a more productive use of time and energy than belabouring everything that is wrong and what other people should be doing to fix those maladies.  What we have found is that the more time you spend in your circles of influence and control, the larger they become. 

So, as senior public sector leaders, what are some of the initiatives that you can take – here and now – to mitigate the risk of what the literature is now referring to as “executive brownout” on your team? 

The bad news is that there is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution.  The good news is that there is probably a compelling reason why each person who is currently experiencing brownout joined the public service in the first place.  As leaders, our challenge is to engage our direct reports to ascertain what that motivation was.  Having done so, we then need to find ways to leverage or re-surface that motivation.  This might mean giving them special assignments or projects to work on; placing them on a multi-sectoral team to brainstorm or implement solutions… 

Some additional good news is that we don’t have to do this all on our own – simply having the conversation can help to bring the sparkle back into those brown eyes that had begun to turn blue.

Can you think of someone in your ministry or department who might be on the verge of “browning out”? What do you think could/would happen if you engaged them in a conversation about it?  What do you think will happen if you don’t? 

The risk you run if you don’t say anything to your staff who may be losing their passion for the job is that the next thing they say to you is goodbye.  And, if that employee was someone whom you consider to be full of potential, their brownout just might make your brown eyes blue.