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Good Leadership: A vaccine for the organizational flu

by Mary Lynn McPherson
in Human Resources, Leadership, Management

Little did the taxpayers know they were paying an extra five percent for the multiplex site servicing work in their small town. Why? Because bidding companies had come to know that when dealing with the municipality’s director of engineering, chances were high that extra effort would be required to get the full amount of the agreed contract price. Sometimes, mid-project work that passed inspection would suddenly be deemed unsatisfactory when it came time to get the engineer’s sign-off for the release of final payment. Low trust costs money.

Did the CAO of the municipality know what was happening? Who knows. And, this might not be the biggest cost related to low trust. What if employees don’t feel safe to speak up when they notice something that could be done more efficiently, or that a supervisor made a mistake? You get the picture.

Taking the Organization’s Pulse

So, how do we know whether there is a safe culture – one of collaboration rather than interdepartmental conflict, one with healthy conflict rather than artificial harmony, one where employees care more about results than they do about the title they hold?

Transformative Incrementalism: A journey to sustainability

A good place to start is by checking the pulse of the senior management team (SMT), they set the tone for municipal employees. (Municipal council can also have a big influence on the tone within staff ranks. Sometimes positive and sometimes negative, but that is a subject for another article.) Is each manager mainly focused on his or her own department, with a compulsory show of forced unity within city hall? Or, is there a tangible sense that the SMT works in a coordinated “give and take” fashion to do what’s best for the community given the ever-dynamic environment within which they serve? Keep in mind that any hostility between departments is often amplified amongst those who report to the SMT.

Choosing the Right Team

Jim Collins, celebrated business author coined the phrase “first who, then what.” He was referring to the relative importance of choosing the right senior managers versus getting the strategy right. In local government, getting the best performance and value for taxpayer dollars starts with having a competent, cohesive team and then a clear strategy for how to deploy resources for maximum community impact (among policing, infrastructure, transportation, community services, etc.).

If department heads are more concerned about increasing their budget allocations and retaining their staff than about what is the best investment or emphasis for the municipality for this particular season or year, then unhelpful behaviours can occur. This can include examples such as budget padding, resentment, passive-aggressiveness, etc. Like a sluggish, flu-infected employee, the municipality as an organization suffers from inefficiency, possibly grumpiness, and may even infect the community it serves. Citizens interacting with municipal employees pick up the “flu” of discontent, disconnection, and distrust of them – whether them is another, seemingly favoured, department within the municipality or across the counter. The contagion continues to spread unless measures to reduce “infection” are put in place.

Truth be known, we’ve all suffered from this type of “flu” at one point or another in our lives. The trick is to build an immunity within the team – which starts with selecting the right players.

Getting Away – Together

Another important way to avoid organizational “flu” is to periodically invest in SMT off-site meetings designed to help the team confront any unhealthy behaviours. Sometimes circumstances, either at home or at work, can reduce our immunity to resentment, others’ moods, and chaos. Getting away from day-to-day routine for an extended time provides a necessary break from the urgent to focus on the important.

Possible agenda items could include debriefing the results of a team diagnostic to mine it for understanding and an action plan; identifying a thematic goal that will guide the SMT as it implements key initiatives of importance to the municipality as a whole; trust building to help restore or create mutually-supportive relationships within the SMT; reviewing results for the purpose of re-forecasting; and reflecting on performance such as employee engagement results or culture assessments.

Whatever the agenda, often the act of getting away to wrestle with important matters is as important as the end of day decisions – especially when a strong organizational culture cascaded by leaders with immunity to the “flu” is the result.

This article has provided just some of the steps needed to avoid organizational flu; however, there are many other solutions as well. The importance lies in being able to identify warning signs, and solving them before they affect the community in a negative way.  MW

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in the full version of this article or in Evert Akkerman’s article: Bridging the employee engagement gap. Note that you can now access the complete collection of past articles (and more) from your membership dashboard.


Mary Lynn McPherson, a STRIVE! senior consultant, works with executive and board teams facilitating strategic planning, consulting with teams tackling tough issues and/or supporting performance evaluation.

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