Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Government Executive on February 18, 2016, by author Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. Reposted permitted by the author. Copyright 2016 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. The opinions expressed are her own, and the content of this post is not intended to represent any federal agency or the government as a whole. Original article located here.
Joining the federal government in 2003 was the cultural equivalent of sticking my finger into a light socket. It was a land where certain phrases — like “efficiency and effectiveness” — had almost magical inspirational powers. Anything that had those words in the mission statement was good; today the equivalent would be “innovation.”
Back then, there were other words that were warning shots. Most notably “I have seniority here, get to the back of the line” — a command I had not heard in many years. If you are considering a career in the federal government, or if you already work there and want to be more successful, here are 5 crucial things to know about how the culture operates:
- Humility. If you have been chosen to work for the federal government, you are one of the lucky ones, and you know it. You get to do work that is important for the country, you get paid a sustainable wage, and you work with nice and fair-minded people. So if you’re egotistical, self-promotional and ungrateful, you won’t fit in very well.
- Sense of Humor. Despite their somewhat serious exterior, feds — who typically have many years of experience at a single agency — have a long institutional memory and have seen innumerable cases of the wackiest stuff go down. There is almost nothing that surprises them, there is nothing new under the sun, and they have thus developed a Steven-Wright-like ability to make just about any crazy situation about a thousand pounds lighter with a laugh. Remember that no matter how much you know, you never can know too much — so enjoy being the person they tell all that “I can’t believe it” stuff to on a daily basis.
- Detail Orientation. In the federal government, employees are typically vastly overworked but also required to get things 100 percent right, not only in the substance but also in the process. Deadlines are shorter than ever, expectations are higher, but the constant drumbeat is that at some point you or your boss may be called upon to answer for your activities. The gold standard for any government employee is work that is “right” and also “right on time” — but if you have to choose between the two, accuracy always wins.
- Diplomacy. In the federal government, the importance of consensus cannot be overstated. When someone has to make a big decision — a costly decision, a significant decision, one that affects a lot of lives — the best way to weigh the options is to err on the conservative side, ask a wide variety of experts for input, and take the route that has the least risk and the most benefits. As part of this system, if you’re the kind of person who’s a lightning rod, who just always rubs people the wrong way, there will be folks who just don’t want to deal with you. So cultivate the manners of a diplomat, so that you can email anyone and everyone, without causing aggravation.
- Integrity. In any social institution, there will be bad actors. Dysfunction is routine in any organized grouping of people. That said, the headlines that emphasize bad behavior are in my experience very distorted. Government employees are all about doing the right thing, and when there’s even a whiff of breaking the rules they will point that out and do it loudly. Some people are more diplomatic at pointing out potential problems than others; as a friend once said, “you must learn the gift of sharing just the options and the risks, with no opinions.”
So those are my tips for success in the federal government: Be humble and of good humor; be accurate and treat people respectfully, and honor the position of trust that you’ve been given. All those things together make for someone whose presence is truly prized.
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Author: Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a federal communicator with 20 years’ experience in the private sector, academia and government. Best known for her work on branding, Dr. Blumenthal now focuses on the discipline of management, particularly the intersections between identity, culture, and communication. She has lectured at a variety of schools including The George Washington University and the University of Maryland University College. In her spare time, she is an independent community activist, focused primarily on raising awareness about child sexual abuse and domestic violence. All opinions are her own.