Deputy Minister Daniel Watson shares his foundational principles for dealing with situations that are beyond one’s control.
At all times, senior leadership must serve as an example for staff, because employees look to their executives for cues on how to act. So that has an exponential impact, whether you have 10 or 20 or 100 employees reporting to you. They will read the signs and follow your lead, so it’s very important, firstly, to set a good example.
Having said that, different circumstances call for different behaviours. For example, in a policy debate, you might have a strong view of what that policy should be but in the end, the minister, the deputy, or the ADM – whoever is in charge of making the decision – might choose to go against your recommendation. At that point, you and the senior leadership must stop trying to change the decision and honour it. If it’s a perfectly legitimate decision made by the authorities whose prerogative it is to make it, then it must be implemented in good faith.
If, however, you’re in a situation where you’ve witnessed inappropriate behaviour and tried to correct it, that’s completely different. It’s not like a policy decision, where you just have to accept it. You have responsibilities as a senior leader to stand up for people who might need protection in certain circumstances, like harassment for example. Or in the case of a performance issue where someone is not performing up to expectations, you have to take appropriate action.
It must always be done professionally, tapping into all the available resources to support everyone involved. What you shouldn’t do is turn your back on the problem. You have to confront it head-on.
In a third scenario, involving external organizations in a different department or other groups within your own department, perhaps you’re having issues in those relationships that you’ve tried to resolve, in vain. That brings us back to the question of setting an example for staff. As a senior leader, you’re in a position to improve a situation, to maintain it, or to make it worse. Under no circumstance should a senior leader ever cause the relationship between organizations to deteriorate. Sometimes, you have to be patient and wait for the right time to make it better in the future. Sometimes, all it takes is to maintain a basic politeness and professionalism, even in difficult circumstances.
So we circle back to the idea of senior leader as role model, never acting in a way that could make a situation worse. That’s a key element to keep in mind. And it can be very difficult and very frustrating. Let’s be clear: many people work in the public service because they want to contribute. By and large, they give the best of themselves at all times.
Having said that, when you’re a senior leader, you’re not just out for yourself. You can’t vent your frustrations the way you could before taking on this role. You can’t share your concerns in the same way, because it has an impact on others.
You always have to think of what example it sets, and even more so in difficult times, because people will take their cues from your actions more than your words. And they’ll be watching more intently in those difficult times, when we’d wish they weren’t looking at all. That’s what they’ll remember going forward, not necessarily the easy times.