Some time back I was giving a presentation to about 80 people who worked for a large state agency. I was asking them about problems they saw in their routine work, problems that wasted their time and state resources.
One employee wanted me to understand how frustrating it could be working in government and told the group the following story that went something like this:
A department meeting was underway and the team was discussing a problem that was causing a lot of extra work. An employee enthusiastically started firing off ideas for the group to consider for fixing the problem. The employee was visibly engaged and enthusiastic.
Another employee, a long timer in the department, looked in dismay at the enthusiastic employee and said, “Oh, you’re the new guy. You obviously haven’t died inside yet.”
Upon hearing this story, the group I was presenting to let out a collective sigh. It was hard to escape the feeling of dread the story left behind.
As humans our entire being seeks to make a difference. There may indeed be a small fraction of people who go to work with the intention of doing as little as possible, but that is anything but typical.
Then how is it that more people than we care to admit have “died inside” – not only in government but in every type of human organization that exists?
When we go to work we show up with the intention of doing it well and making a real contribution. But if you have ever worked in an organization where the ways of doing things were completely entrenched and fresh ideas were unwelcomed, you understand what causes the death of our fundamental human spirit.
In the one place where creativity would be especially valued – which is in government because everyone benefits when it succeeds – we have tied people down with bureaucratic policies and rulebooks so thick that not only can they not be understood, but in many cases the policy or rule can’t even be found.
We need motivated humans putting their talents to work creating new and better ways of doing everything in our society. That’s what made us the most prosperous nation in the history of the world.
As a leader there is nothing more important than enabling your people to improve and innovate. No one is really dead inside, they’re simply waiting for the opportunity to be human.