Gary is 39 and known around his office as an up-and-coming star. He is seen as aggressive, hard-working, savvy about the ins and outs of the system -- all of which appears to be perfectly normal within his agency. But from outside looking in, Gary's workplace seems abnormal at best. He is involved in a destructively competitive environment where his peers are constantly maneuvering to do each other in as they climb to the top. Gary himself talks with unsettling satisfaction about a recent incident when he was able to make one of his co-workers look like an idiot in front of the head of the agency.
Gary usually doesn't leave work until late each night; often he exhaustedly falls asleep in his living room watching the 11 p.m. news. He is recently divorced, and his apartment has a warehouse flavor, cluttered with cartons not yet unpacked. Gary doesn't care much about the apartment or anything else outside his work. His life revolves around his job. Frequently, when he falls asleep, he has the same dream:
He is walking down a long empty corridor at the agency. As he walks, he feels mounting tension. Eventually, he passes by a door to a stairway. Suddenly, it springs open, and standing there is a human figure in a frogman's suit and mask. The figure points a speargun at Gary and, without saying a word, fires it at Gary's heart. Gary wakes up screaming in terror.
Gary is a deeply troubled person, but he is hardly alone. In conjunction with Harvard University's Project on Technology, Work and Character, I have been studying people like Gary for two years to determine the psychological effects of the federal workplace on employes. So far those studies indicate much deeper problems than most people suspect. Many federal employes are quite simply faced with a system that brings out the worst side of them. Federal workers who already have tendencies toward emotional disturbance are made worse, and many normal individuals show symptoms of emotional sickness when trying to cope with their unhealthy environment. Here are some examples of such employes:
Like Gary, Ellen has risen rapidly in the hierarchy of her department and says the power she seeks so savagely "can be better than sex." Phil is a middle-aged bureaucrat who hung on to his job even though his agency was restructured and he lost two GS grade levels. These days Phil spends a lot of time wandering the hallways where he works, staring into space. Tom, a top-level manager, periodically urinates in his wastebasket. Donna, recently promoted to a management position, has been overheard talking to herself. She frequently shouts at people who enter her office. Ken's subordinates hate him because he is always recording in a little book how much time they spend on the telephone or going to the bathroom.
The Garys, Ellens, Phils, Toms, Donnas and Kens I have studied are from a sample of lower-, middle- and upper-level employes at 10 federal departments. They include managers and nonmanagers who have a range of responsibilities such as administrative, legal, regulatory, legislative, scientific and technical. So far my research has uncovered two broad categories of disturbed federal bureaucrats: power-lovers, such as Gary and Ellen, and victims, such as Phil and Ken.
Traditional psychotherapeutic treatment tends to ignore how work effects the development of emotional disturbance. It also ignores most of the effects of social institutions and situations. Nevertheless work can bring out or reinforce certain existing tendencies in a person, tendencies that may be healthy and lead to growth and development or that may be irrational and lead to sickness.
The study of how work shapes people and strengthens aspects of their characters originates in a theory and research method called sociopsychoanalysis, which has been developed over the past 40 years by Erich Fromm and his associates. Fromm's associate Michael Maccoby, who directs the Harvard program, studied executives in major corporations. In his book The Gamesman, Maccoby wrote that qualities of the "head," such as intellectual innovation, flexibility and teamwork, were strengthened among top executives. Qualities of the "heart," like compassion, generosity and the capacity to love deeply, were found not useful to the corporation and were left undeveloped. Executives with the most succeessful careers were generally the ones with the most undeveloped hearts.
Within the federal bereaucracy I found that not only are hearts undeveloped even among the best employes, but employes also are required to adapt their workplaces in ways that may lead to unhealthy emotional attitudes. Consider, for example, the powerlovers. At first glance they may not seem emotionally unhealthy because their behavior is what their work calls for. Their sick desires, furthermore, are often rewarded and thus encouraged.
Among power-lovers, two types emerge: ass-kickers and ass-kissers. Ellen, who says she sometimes enjoys "cracking the whip just for the fun or it," is an ass-kicker.
Some years ago she took a lower-level administrative federal job after graduating from a major West Coast university. Now in her early 30's, she has moved quickly through several agencies and offices, working mostly in areas of policy analysis and formulation. She has regular contact with presidentially appointed officials and likes working with people at the top because "that's where the action is."
She is seen by co-workers as very aggressive and competent but also as a person who uses her femininity and seductiveness to get what she wants, including sleeping with men who are powerful. At other times she seems to be hard and tough-minded. Ellen says she finds her work intoxicating and admits that her struggle for power helped put her marriage on the rocks several years ago. She and her husband had no children. "I never wanted any, but I don't understand why," she says. "I don't think about it much."
Like Gary, Ellen also has a recurring dream: She is all alone in her building, walking down empty, endless corridors. All she hears is the sound of her own footsteps. Then, when she wakes up, she feels a strange mixture of satisfaction and fear.
Ass-kickers such as Ellen, found throughout the bureaucracy, are driven by an insatiable lust for power and glory, by destructive, life-hating attitudes, and by blinding self-love. There are, of course, many positive aspects to Ellen's character as well, but her destructive emotional passions are rewarded in her workplace -- she gets ahead and "succeeds" by allowing those passions to become dominant. She has adapted to a sick work environment quite well.
Ellen thinks she's happy, but deep within herself she knows all is not well. She has gnawing feelings of guilt that conflict with her driving lust for power, and unconsciously she feels she has betrayed herself and that she will suffer for it. Her recurring dream reveals the emptiness and emotional isolation that have become part of the price she pays for acquiring power.
The chances are that Ellen, and many others like her in top federal positions, will become even more hardened, even more cut off from emotional reality, as they become more successful.
Many federal ass-kickers begin their careers with a strong sense of dedication and commitment to the needs of others. Bob, one of the government workers I studied, did more than his share of marching in streets in student protests while he was in college and law school in the late 1960s and early 1970s. From law school he went to a stint as a public interest lawyer working with the ghetto poor, then left when he was offered a staff job working for an important congressional committee. He says he took the establishment job because he was intrigued by the chance to get things done from "the seat of power."
Bob has done well on the committee. His initial lack of confidence in his abilities has faded, and he has been drawn into the pursuit of power and glamor that goes with his positon. He talks about being "tremendously excited" to be doing work that has "major impact."
The importance of what Bob does in shaping legislation is grossly exaggerated in his mind. The better he did, the more praise he got, and the more important he felt. He plots constantly to work his way to the top and ruthlessly plans the demise of anyone standing in his way. But unconsciously he feels he is a fraud, someone always doing someone else's bidding, that he has to perform to be appreciated. His dreams reflect these themes.
In one important dream Bob hopes an important senator he has shown a report to won't notice that the report is filled with blank pages. In another dream Bob's mother sends him on countless errands which he performs automatically, like a robot. All Bob's life he was driven to develop his intellectual powers in order to win the love of a demanding and possessive mother. He now feels a deep, inward need to be loved. And unlike Ellen, his life outside work has been increasingly unhappy because he has come to realize he is unable to love anyone.
Bob's irrational desires for power and glory are fed by his work environment -- what is highly valued at top levels of the federal bureaucracy is the ability to look, sound and act tough, to put others down, to kick ass. Another valued talent in this environment is the ability to produce something -- a memo, an urgent meeting -- on demand from superiors. Asskickers are always doing something -- talking, analyzing, writing reports. Some of that work does result in action that affects people or policies, but much of it has little real substance or significance. It simply provides an opportunity to pursue more power and more glory.
The healthier tendencies of people like Bob and Ellen and Gary nare not needed in their jobs and so have withered away. For example, high federal positions rarely encourage a sense of public service, the very reason many people say they entered government jobs in the first place.
Of course, Ellen and Bob couldn't get away with being asskickers at the top if there weren't a fair number of employees farther down the chain of command willing to be kicked. Found mostly at middle levels of management, I call such people ass-kissers.
David, who is in his mid-30s, is an ass-kisser. A man who has been promoted rapidly within his agency, he does whatever his bosses want, and he does it well. He says he looks for "ggod leadership" from his bosses, but in fact he sha sought out sadistic, controlling superiors like Ellen who like to crack the whip every so often just "for the fun of it." He unconsciously wants to be controlled and dominated by superiors, and, also unconsciously, he resents rational leaders.
Outside the office David is lonely and depressed. Although attractive, sensitive and compassionate, he never dates any one woman for very long. He says he finds "flaws" in all the women he meets and then withdraws from them in search of someone new. He wants very much to find someone he can love, but unconsciously he feels deeply dependent and is driven to submit himself to humiliation in hopes of obtaining mother-like love and protection.
Often a person like David has an inner sense of the truth, which, though deeply buried, can be seen in dreams or through intense psychotherapy. Inwardly, David knows he is being pulled away from health and independence. One of his dreams illustrates that he knows this: He is riding around and around on a Ferris wheel. Finally it stops and he gets off next to a long, dark tunnel. He is drawn into the tunnel by a mysterious force. As he walks into the tunnel he hears the sound of the ocean beckoning at the other end.
I asked David what he thought the dream meant. He said he was certain the Ferris wheel represented his career, because he often feels his work goes round and round but leads nowhere. When I asked what he thought of the tunnel and the ocean, he leaned forward and whispered that the tunnel and ocean frightened him. It meant something in his career was sucking him toward a terrible ending.
A psychoanalyst would say David's dream represents a strong wish to crawl back into the womb. Patients in psychoanalysis will express such feelings quite literally as they analyze their dreams. Although deep within himself David knows his self-destructive withdrawal from the world is supported by his workplace, his successful career makes it difficult for him to face the truth about himself. If he did, he might have to quit or stand up to his sadistic bosses.
Ass-kissers working for ass-kickers throughout the federal bureaucracy can be difficult to detect because these two types of power-lovers interlock so neatly in their work environment, each feeding off the other.
Power-lovers are disturbed, yet show no symptoms. But the other group of federal employes I have studied -- victims -- are basically normal people who do show symptoms of emotional disturbance. They react to stressful or unhealthy situations that are more frequently found in the federal bureaucracy than in private industry. In addition, victims tend to be passive, unproductive and dependent.
Phil is a typical victim. He is a career bureaucrat in his mid-50s who has achieved respectability and regular promotions over the years. For the most part, he is a healthy individual. Although he never reached the top, he said he was generally pleased with the recognition he received. He has always wanted to be a conscientious public servant, was a good family man and was involved with charities and civic work outside the office. But then Phil left on an assignment for his agency for a few weeks, and it underwent extensive reorganization in his absence, a reorganization mandated by President Carter.
When Phil returned, he walked into work one day to discover that his position had been abolished. He was to be downgraded two GS levels and transferred to less responsible work in another office. He was stunned. "It's nothing personal, Phil," his boss told him, but the only choice he had was to accept the decision or quit. Phil was loyal to his agency and decided to try to accept the logic of the reorganization.
Nevertheless, he felt rejected, demoralized and humiliated. His friends urged him to quit or fight the decision. But Phil felt listless and immobilized. He asked over and over again how this could happen to someone who had worked hard for so many years. He became severly depressed and considered suicide. He said he didn't know if he could survive such a crushing blow to his sense of prestige of status.
He began to get less and less done at work. More his work was channeled to others, and the personnel office referred him to a psychiatrist so he could "adjust."
In studying Phil's case I found him to have a clear capacity for copperation and service, as well as competency in his field. But in addition there is an underlying dependency and passivity in his character. He has always needed direction, support and recognition to fuel his loyalty and sense of duty as a government employe. His identity, however, had become his GS rating. Without it, he felt worthless.
It is typical of the federal bureaucracy that little effort has been made to recognize victims like Phil and to develop the more productive and active sides of them.
Criticism of the federal bureaucracy and how it treats its employes is nothing new. Every president since World War II has promised to clean up the government service. Jimmy Carter was no exception, and he made the Civil Service Reform Act passed by Congress last year a hallmark of his administration. It was supposed to do away with a lot of inefficiency and unresponsiveness within the bureaucracy. Many people felt it would do the job. When California Gov. Jerry Brown was recently asked what he would do to straighten out the Civil Service mess, he asked an interviewer: "Didn't Carter's bill take care of that?"
On the basis of my research I can say that the new legislation, far from improving the operations of our government, has made things considerably worse. Despite the increased protection it offers whistleblowers, the Civil Service Reform Act is contributing to even more bureaucratic inefficiency than before and creating even more emotional casualties than existed before.
Based on experiments to improve work and management in the federal bureaucracy, Harvard's Maccoby has argued that the reform act's emphasis on incentives such as the merit pay plan for the new Senior Executive Service entirely misses the point.
Many bureaucrats already feel well paid; what they don't feel is appreciated. They want an atmosphere of trust rather tahn carrot-and-stick incentives. The act increases distrust, suspicion and a police-state environment. Employes respond to these conditions by covering up, protecting themselves and getting what they can. Management then tries to tighten up its control, which leads to a collapse of cooperation and communication. The result is not reform but support of the very worst characteristics of the bureaucracy, which in turn brings out the very worst in the employes.
Although the reform act will produce more power-lovers like Ellen, it will produce even more victims like Phil. And victims tend to be less active and productive than power-lovers.
Donna is another typical victim. A bright and friednly-college graduate, she took a government job with a management-oriented path because she felt there were lots of opportunities to get ahead and get better pay as she advanced. After several years of regular promotions, a low-level management position opened up within her agency. Although the promotion would jump her at once from a GS-7 to a GS-12 level, her supervisors felt Donna's intellectual and technical abilities would qualify her for the position. Besides, the office was short-staffed. Donna was appointed to the position on an acting basis.
She was delighted. She saw the new job as a challenge and a giant step ahead in her career. But before long Donna discovered that her new boss was unsupportive of his subordinates, demanding, and at times outright hostile. He began to criticize Donna's work, yet at the same time he ignored her pleas for help in organizing the work of her office.
Donna's co-workers began to notice that she was becoming irritable and suspicious. She scolded them, said they were conspiring to wreck her career, and accused them of stealing important papers from the files. She also began writing long memos to the secretary of her agency and to congressmen, charging that top management only looked out for itself, was trying to get rid of her and was illegally persecuting her. She was overheard talking to herself, and she frequently shouted at employes who entered her office.
Finally, Donna's boss told her she would have to be relieved of her position and that unless she got "control" of herself, disciplinary action would be taken. Before long her symptoms began to disappear.
Donna was able to snap out of her irrational reactions to the stress she was under because, as a basically normal person, she could respond to the reality that she might get fired and her career might be ruined. Had she been a deeply disturbed person, she would not have been able to control her internal conflicts and probably would have gotten worse.
Donna chose to "settle down" and do no more or no less than what was asked of her. She began looking for another office to transfer to where the atmosphere would be more cooperative and friendly. She said she realized the lack of support in her workplace "was actually making me crazy."
Donna has the ability to work cooperatively with others, and she strongly believes in the ideals of public service. Her situation in the new position she felt frustrated in her attempt to serve the public competently.
Assignment to a job level above one's capability does not necessarily lead to breakdowns. Some workers unqualified for their posts adapt, but though sometimes in unproductive ways. Ken, a native of a melting-pot neighborhood in a midwestern city, worked while he was growing up at whatever odd jobs he could find to help with the needs of his large family. After high school he jumped at a chance to come to Washington to work for the federal government as a clerk-typist. Energetic, active and ambitious, he was promoted -- in what is a typical pattern -- to positions beyond his capabilities. He is now a GS-15 earning more than $40,000 a year. His repeated requests for further training have been ignored by management.
Ken some time ago began to feel inside as though he were walking on thin ice, a not unrealistic apprehension because his superiors had in fact concluded his was unable to work independently despite his high position. To protect himself Ken decided not to look for stimulating work; there were too many risks of failure. His need for security and stability were fed by the promotions that had regularly occurred without risk-taking or effort by him.
Feeling abandoned by his superiors, Ken has become bitter about all management. He has turned into a nit-picker disliked by all because he spends much of his day recording in a little book how many minutes his subordinates spend away from their desks. Despite Ken's unproductiveness, he is tolerated by management -- his bosses have decided it would be too much trouble to get rid of him.
Management's view of Ken reinforces his worst fears and attitudes, so Ken does what he can with his limited qualifications: he measures people and enters his measurements in a little book.
What is really needed in the case of victims like Ken and Donna is not psychotherapy, but a better work environment, one designed to a stimulate the best in people.
Because victims tend to be passive, they do little to take things into their own hands. But a more positive group of government workers I found offers hope of what could be done with better leadership. The best workers in the bureaucracy have been able to develop themselves into more productive employes through strengths in their own character, rather than through support of the bureaucracy.
The best workers are imaginative, open to new ideas and believers in teamwork. They seek out situations in which they can best use their talents. They look for challenges and are not afraid to leave a job that becomes limiting. Nevertheless, even the best workers are limited by the bureaucracy's failure to stimulate the qualitites of the heart. Both they and the public would benefit by an on-the-job fostering of concern for others, of generosity, of the willingness to take risks when necessary.
Some current experiments at the State Department, Commerce Department and at Action conducted by Maccoby and Harvard Project staff show it is possible to strengthen the best values inherent in the civil service, values such as efficient performance, service to the public and individual development, and to build on them.
Upper managers were convinced that employes would contribute more if their rights were expanded to include opportunities for personal development.
In these experiments the employes themselves, rather than "outside experts" or the bosses operating in isolation, examine the agency's work and the means available to accomplish it. Then they decide how to rearrange assignments, responsiblities and the flow of work so the job is done better and the human needs of the workers are better served. In planning these changes, four principles are absolute:
1. Superiors and subordinates should work in an atmosphere of mutual trust.
2. Superiors and subordinates should treat each other fairly when setting priorities and sharing resources.
3. Superiors and subordinates should respect individual differences in career goals, personal values and needs for personal growth.
4. Superiors and subordinates should jointly participate in decisions affecting the goals and operations of the organization.
In the first experiment concluded, directors of several offices reporting to one of the assistant secretaries of commerce, as well as employes in two of the affected Commerce Department offices, rearranged their work in ways specifically designed to stimulate employe growth both in the head and in the heart. Among the changes:
The office directors in the department, eager to eliminate an adversarial atmosphere, each wrote a contract with the assistant secretary in which each agreed to provide her with full information on the operation of his office, and furthermore agreed not to cover up anything. The assistant secretary, in turn, pledged not to penalize the directors for speaking frankly about their errors or their criticism of her.
Employes in the office of audits found that carrying out their job of financial control like policemen depressed morale and reduced efficiency. The took steps to redefine their work as a service to other Commerce units assisting them to set up better financial systems.
Employes in both the office of audits and the office of publications reworked assignments to reduce the sense of isolation and remoteness from the carrying out of policy suffered by some workers.
The data available up to this point shows that the quality of work and management in the participating Commerce Department units has measurably improved. Employes and managers have found their work more satisfying and productive.
Mementum is building in this country and many others for improving the work environment for government and non-government workers. Particularly noteworthy efforts are under way in Scandinavia. Norway, the leading nation in such endeavors, recently passed legislation requiring employers to arrange for personal development through work and to provide employes the opportunity to participate in the planning and arranging of their work.
Failure to address the question of how changes can be made in the organization, leadership and evaluation policies of the federal bureaucracy will result in continued deterioration. We will continue to see more Garys, Donnas, Ellens and Kens. And we will continue to get less for our tax dollars.