by Kellye Whitney
March 27, 2006
State workers around the country have gotten a bad reputation when it comes to service. To make matters worse, bureaucratic, old-fashioned performance systems can make it very difficult to terminate an employee, no matter how dismal their performance. The Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES) is aware of this stereotype and is currently transitioning its roughly 800 employees into a new way of working using a blended learning approach involving traditional instructor-led classes, a Pathlore LMS with thousands of SkillSoft courses and Six Sigma training.
“The culture has historically been one of hierarchy and a lot of bureaucracy where people are afraid to make decisions, afraid to take risks,” said Irish Smothers, chief learning officer, Mississippi Department of Employment Security/Office of the Governor. “We have very nice, honest, intelligent people who work here, but much of that has been because people weren’t rewarded for taking risks, or they weren’t taught that making decisions and thinking independently were OK. A lot of them feel like they have to ask permission to do anything, and they don’t really feel empowered. What we want to do right now with the Office of Learning is transform the entire culture where people will feel that it’s OK to make decisions.”
MDES’ mission is to put Mississippians to work. The organization is also responsible for distributing unemployment insurance and placing candidates in training at local colleges. Smothers said that Governor Haley Barbour has made it a priority for the state to improve workforce development systems in order for businesses to thrive, prosper and increase job opportunities. To facilitate that, MDES will have to transform itself into a learning organization that encourages personal and professional development, and stimulates and creates superior performance.
“It’s an amazing thing working with the state,” Smothers said. “If you are hired as an employee with the state, once you complete your 12-month probationary period then you have something called ‘property rights.’ That means that you actually own your job, and it’s very difficult to terminate people. You have people feeling like, ‘This is my job. I don’t necessarily have to do a whole lot of stuff in terms of performing at optimal levels because I’m already here.’”
Smothers has mandated that all of MDES supervisors and managers complete performance management training in order to foster a sense of accountability and promote the idea that managing everyone’s performance efficiently is part of the organization’s culture. The training covers the importance of feedback, coaching, documentation and the benefits of writing effective, strategically based responsibilities and performance standards with which to rate employees. “If people are underperforming, that’s really not acceptable,” Smothers said. “We want to be able to motivate and keep the high-performers that we have, but we also want to be able to work with low-performers to diagnose the problem and get them to an acceptable level of performance. (Managers) are learning how to listen to what employees are saying to find out who the employees are right now and discuss what is the desired outcome to help the person get from where they are to where they want and need to be.”
MDES also is using Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” as a learning tool to initiate cultural change. Smothers said the book will help the organization acquire some universally important principles and change thoughts, behaviors, assumptions and habits. “All of those things are an iceberg,” Smothers explained. “Below you have all of these ideas and thoughts. Above the surface you have actual behavior, and cultures can be very strong. We’re going back to get training that deals with principles like, ‘As an individual, I’m free to choose,’ and ‘I’m responsible for the choices that I make.’ I want people in this culture to understand that to change the results that we’re getting as individuals and as professionals, we have to change our behaviors. And in order to change our behaviors, we have to change how we think or how we see things, our worldview of ourselves and our organization. We want to be able to create positive results for the people who work for MDES and also for the organization as a whole.”
–Kellye Whitney, firstname.lastname@example.org