Op-Ed – Extraordinary Interview: Part One, Defining the Problem

Frank Schneiger
Frank Schneiger

Every so often you come across something where you say to yourself, “I hope everyone reads this,” but you know they probably won’t because it is not clickbait. Such is the recent interview with Gov. Albert Bryan. (Virgin Islands Source, February 5, 2020, “Bryan Says He is Committed to Money Saving Measures.”)

The interview is about far more than saving money. It reflects the thinking of a top executive whose mental model includes the health and capacity of the organizations that deliver critical public services. You might ask, well, what’s so special about that? The answer would be: a lot. I can think of numerous jurisdictions in which the chief executive, governor, mayor, or, especially in our bleak times, a president, scarcely think about these matters, except as vehicles for taking credit for something good that has happened or avoiding blame for something bad that occurred on their watch.

There are two striking things about Bryan’s observations during the interview. The first was his openness in acknowledging the organizational issues faced by Virgin Islands’ agencies. As we know, the first step in addressing any problem is to name it. He did that. The second thing was his depth of knowledge and understanding of these issues, especially the “cultural” and behavioral roots of the problems. For most public officials, the response to these problems is to fire someone or to move boxes around on an organization chart. Those are easy ways out, but they rarely get at the real issues.

Let’s flesh out some of the themes that Bryan touched on, and then put them in a larger context of building healthy and effective V.I. government agencies. The first theme is a structural one that contributes to what Bryan referred to as “a bad culture.” That is the problem of outdated systems, work processes, job descriptions and habits. These are the “how we do things here” issues that have no connection to current realities. And whose compensation patterns are disconnected from the skills needed and the work that has to be done.

Albert Bryan
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (File photo)

Wherever these conditions exist, they produce two outcomes, both of them bad. The first is ambiguity, when what is needed is great clarity. What do I do? What am I responsible and held accountable for? What are the work processes and systems that we use? What is acceptable? What isn’t? Where do I fit in?

Ambiguity produces confusion, negative conflict and the second bad outcome, a sense of what is known as “relative deprivation,” as in, “Why should I work my ass off when (fill in the name) doesn’t do much, leaves early every day, and makes more than I do?” In the Virgin Islands – as elsewhere – these problems have emerged over many years, becoming “cultural.” They are seen in the norms and behaviors of those working in government agencies.

They are a powerful negative force.

Then we come to another of Bryan’s insights: things that motivate people at work. Summed up in his comment: “When you are going to work for pay, not purpose, you are like a rudderless boat and dissatisfied.” The Harvard Business School did a large survey of motivation. The categories were: pay, recognition and healthy organizational qualities. When they asked corporate CEO’s what they thought the rankings would be, most focused on money. They were wrong. What the survey found was that people were motivated by two things in the workplace: first, that, when I have a problem, I can go to my boss, supervisor, manager and he or she will help me solve it. The second was the belief that, in my organization, we are making progress and doing good things. Both consistent with Bryan’s message.

Finally, Bryan focused on another one of our era’s major ills, vindictiveness and the search for something with which to hurt another person or group. These are negative qualities that poison the atmosphere and make it more and more difficult to build healthy organizations based on trust and achieve results for those we serve. Once again, by naming a bad practice that is becoming normalized, the governor has done a real service.

If accurately naming the problem is the first step toward resolving it, what are the steps and actions that can get us to those positive ends? We’ll take a look at those in Part Two.