Mold in a home is an insidious problem. It doesn’t explode onto the scene like a busted pipe, or drip its way into your consciousness like a leaky faucet. People living with mold often don’t even know it’s in their house. They just know that over time, the family keeps getting sick; they can’t breathe well, and a sense of lethargy has kicked in. The energy and vitality of the home have slowly turned into chronic illness.

The hallways of government are rife with mold. You can’t see it — we’ve wallpapered over it with vision statements, mission goals, customer-service policies and employee-of-the-month plaques. But its there, fouling the air, sickening the family and destroying the energy and vitality of public service.

How do you know if your agency has a mold problem? Check the symptoms:

  • Low morale
  • Poor customer service
  • CYA
  • Silo mentality or turf wars
  • Slow processes
  • Few innovations or ideas
  • Constant complaining
  • Apathy
  • High absenteeism, grievances and turnover
  • Rampant distrust (of employees, customers and management)

Just like a family living in a moldy house, the agency becomes lethargic, grey and chronically ill. There is a subtle, pervasive smell of fear lingering in the carpets, the cubicles and conference rooms. It’s a fear to question. A fear to act. A fear to make a mistake. An outsider (say, a customer) can sense it right away. He sees it in the long lines in the lobby and hears it when told to take a number. It’s in the endless posters of policies tacked up on the wall, warning him of what he shouldn’t do and reminding him (too late, of course) of everything he forgot to bring with him. The fear is on the face of the frustrated worker who takes all the blame for the policies but lacks any power to change them. The fear sits in every question on the 20-page form the customer must fill out, the one that culminates in the signature block filled with menacing legal threats.

Everything about the place just screams “no can do” and “you’d better not.”

And those are just the visible symptoms.

What outsiders don’t see is the mold in the employee break room (no, I’m not talking about that six-month-old container of curry chicken). It’s the sign that claims “Our employees are our most valued asset”—right next to the thermostat with the lock on it. It’s the Employee of the Month wall with a different winner chosen at random every 30 days. It’s the poster advertising all the benefits HR can deliver—right next to the bereavement-leave policy underlining in red ink who counts as family. It’s the suggestion box located just below the mandatory overtime schedule.

It smells like fear.

Where did the mold come from? From the way we view people. It’s the belief that the problems in government are “people problems.” That government workers are inferior, or that they’re not giving it their all. That they will only do the minimum amount of work required. They can’t be trusted and must be controlled, directed, supervised and inspected.

This view is essentially borne out of what social psychologist Douglas McGregor termed in his 1960 book, The Human Side of Enterprise, as the “Theory X” view of people. Theory X holds that people have an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if they can. They naturally avoid work and shun responsibility. Theory X claims workers are self-centered and do not care about organizational goals and will resist change at all costs.

Of course no one would admit to believing those things. We’ve become far too enlightened by human resources directors to talk this way. Instead we say this:

People are our greatest asset, we just need to develop their competencies and channel their talent toward the pursuit of measurable goals. We need to focus on their strengths, give them positive feedback, and reward and recognize their outstanding performance. We want to motivate them, engage them, and ensure a climate of honesty, openness and accountability.

It’s the same sentiment with nicer words! Underneath it all is the fundamental belief that we need employees to be more motivated, more engaged, more productive, more accountable. Just more. If we could get more from our people we could do more for our citizens. The belief is that we have a people problem. We need you to pedal harder, faster, and in a prescribed direction. When we cling to that belief, we reach for three moldy solutions: Get better people, motivate the ones you have, and hold everyone accountable.

*Originally published as A Mold Epidemic in Government, (, November 3, 2011)

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