Waiting it out

Posted on July 26, 2011 by

“Donna, you know as well as I do that these city manager shakeups always peter out. We just have to wait.”  – Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation

Recently in a Front-Runners training, an employee asked Executive Constantine whether his reform agenda (integrating continuous improvement and employee engagement into the culture of King County) would last. I shared the concern. At times I have wondered if I will find my Front-Runners notebook a year from now—just another three-ring binder pushed to the back of my bookshelf?

Executive Constantine answered the question by telling a story from “Parks and Recreation.” If you haven’t watched the sitcom, it is a day in the life of a mid-level bureaucrat (Amy Poehler) in the Parks Department of a fictional town in Indiana. It is not the funniest show on television, but the County employee in me finds it hilarious. Art mimicking life  . . .

The Story: A new city manager (Rob Lowe) shows up and makes sweeping reforms. Among them, the cynic of all cynics, Ron Swanson, is assigned to a completely round desk. The theory? He can respond to customer service needs more readily, swiveling 360 degrees. After a couple citizens run circles round the desk trying to get the attention of a swiveling Ron, he reports, “these city manager shake-ups always peter out. We just have to wait.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hyc1aMtnHJo

Ah, yes. The “wait it out” move. I suspect this strategy has crossed the mind of even the most earnest and dedicated County employees at one time or another. In the arena of workplace change (E.g. recycled initiatives, evolving forms of measurements, competing templates for mission/vision/value statement, etc.) a rare few have the Velcro to stick.

So what was the Executive’s answer? I heard him say that he is not in support of imposing the “round desk” solution, rather soliciting change from the people doing the work. I heard him say the concepts of continuous improvement and employee engagement can’t be “waited out”—they are central to his administration. I have also heard Deputy County Executive Fred Jarrett quote the change management literature and explain that it takes 5 years for a cultural shift to catch on and 8 years to really take hold. Fred said, even with just a first term guaranteed that by year 4 they will be far into influencing a change in County culture.

It only takes 20% of us to reach a tipping point and make the change. From my vantage point, I see small signs of a new King County. I train work groups in change management and have conversations with them about the realities of their work lives (annexations, layoffs and bumping, new leadership in their Divisions and their unions, space moves, etc.) To me the measure is not whether the moniker of “Be The Difference” remains or if someone can repeat the five principles of process improvement in order. I have seen a palpable cultural shift from “I have to do it myself” to “Its okay to ask for help.” And supervisors are asking for help—“how do I engage my employees?” “How do I resolve this conflict that has persisted for 10 years that keeps us locked in a broken process?” Sometimes the discomfort of the supervisor is palpable, but I have seen acts of courage, nevertheless.

So what have you seen? Where do you see evidence of a new King County. Please reply below!

Stephanie Bell is a mediator, trainer, and Program Manager of the King County Alternative Dispute Resolution Program and Interlocal Conflict Resolution Group.  Prior to this she was the Alternative Dispute Resolution Coordinator for the City of Seattle where she designed and implemented an employment mediation program for City government in a joint labor-management context.   Stephanie has served as adjunct faculty at Seattle University School of Law and is currently an adjunct faculty member at the Pepperdine School of Law, Straus Institute of Dispute Resolution. She is also a faculty instructor in Negotiations in the Executive Masters in Public Affairs Program at the University of Washington, Evans School.

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