5 Key Differences Between Leadership Behaviors in the Government and Private Sector

Different situations elicit different behaviors.  Factors that impact these situations that we experience come from our structural, social, and personal surroundings.

Our environment can have a tremendous impact in how we act, and how our actions impact those around us.  Let’s examine below how the different structures in both the government and private sector impact the behavior of their leadership:

5 Behavioral Differences of Leaders and Employees

  1. Overall Culture.  Government culture is by definition rules-based.  Congress passes laws, departments generate regulations, and government enforces laws and regulations.  In this environment it is difficult to get employees to take initiative, go beyond the rule, and work to delight its customers.  I found that training programs are more necessary in government, like Human Centered Design, to get employees to think of the customer first, and how their initiative can positively impact the customer.  In the private sector acting upon new ideas, tactics, and processes is encouraged because they may lead to greater effectiveness, efficiency and profitability.
  2. Incentives.  Government doesn’t have the incentive structure (promotions based largely on longevity, salary inflexibility, no stock options) as that of the private sector.  Thus, a leader in government really needs to focus on the inspirational purpose of the department or agency in order to incentivize employees. Arguably, an inspirational purpose is a more powerful incentive.
  3. Training.  Government employees tend to be undertrained when compared to their counterparts in the private sector.  Why? Because whenever a crisis occurs, or a budget gets tight, training is one of the first programs to be discontinued. When I was Secretary, a member of Congress criticized me for spending money training VA employees to improve Veteran care.
  4. Change.  The Government organizational structure is difficult to change.  It often requires an act of Congress and the agreement of the President.  Given the difficulty of getting this alignment, some administrations may add political appointees to government to avert the law change.  In addition, organizational structures in government do not get renewed like those in the private sector and thus they can become outdated.
  5. Constant Opposition.  In government there will always be opposition and criticism for those in a leadership even if it is undeserved.  The criticism could come from the opposition party or from the press.  This means government must be effective in communicating with its stakeholders.

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