Unexpectedly Intriguing!
July 22, 2005

Regular readers know that Political Calculations has long observed the shortcomings of the collective leadership of Washington state (in general) and King County (in particular). And that's for a reason. What makes these particular governments more interesting than, oh say, that of the City of Chicago, are their leaders unique combination of support for radical left-wing ideology *and* corrupt Democratic party machine politics. While Chicago has had more than its fair share of corrupt politics in its history, its leaders have always stood by core American values and sensibilities. In Washington state however, things are different, as there is little structural impediment from checks and balances within nearly every level of government to restrain its leaders' worst impulses, and little outside government as well.

King County Executive Ron Sims Nowhere does this difference stand out more clearly than in the workings of the government of King County, where a culture of fear has fully taken reign under County Executive Ron Sims (picture on the right), where recent examples may be found at Sound Politics. We could go on and rant about the latest outrages, but Political Calculations is always more interested in solving problems. In this case, the question that we find compelling is "how would responsible leaders go about fixing the self-inflicted problems of King County?" And perhaps more the the point: "How would a responsible leader repair the culture of fear that has taken root in King County's government?"

To begin answering that question, it's best to first recognize the features that characterize the environment in which a culture of fear may develop in an organization. The world of business provides such an example in the recent scandal at USA Today, where reporter Jack Kelley was able to "fabricate and plagiarize stories for more than a decade."

More than anything else, the cultural environment of the newsroom at USA Today allowed the misconduct to occur, according to a panel of independent editors. Tim Porter outlines the environmental culture of fear that allowed the scandal to grow:

  • Lax editing: Lack of standards, or unwillingness to enforce them.
  • Newsroom leadership: Focused on process not product; looking inward, not outward.
  • Staff communications: Competition instead of collaboration; department silos worthy of the FBI and CIA.
  • Star system: Work only with the "easy" people; an inability, or unwillingness, to develop staff.
  • Climate of fear: Destructive, defensive culture bent on perfection not performance or risk.
  • Anonymous sources: Playing by their rules, not ours.

While specific to USA Today and the business of journalism, it would not be hard, at all, to find equivalents to these environmental features of a culture of fear in today's King County government.

So, now knowing what defines a culture of fear in an organization, how would a responsible leader fix the problem? Kathleen Ryan and Daniel Oestreich have researched how to rebuild trust in organizations whose functioning has been impaired by fear, publishing their work in Driving Fear Out of the Workplace. They find that the road back to an culture of high trust is built on the following foundations:

  • Acknowledging the presence of fear.
  • Paying attention to interpersonal conduct.
  • Valuing criticism and rewarding the messenger.
  • Reducing ambiguity in rules and relationships.
  • Discussing the previously undiscussable.
  • Collaborating on decisions.
  • Challenging "Worst Case" thinking.

Of course, all it will take to begin repairing the damage wrought by King County's culture of fear is new, more responsible leadership. That will be hard, as the old leadership does not yet realize that its time has passed, and it will fight being forced to step aside. Worse, the old leadership's base of support, which includes the local media, does not recognize its obsolescence either. And so, the hard work that it will take to heal the wounds of fear must await the hard work to put new leaders in place. For the people of King County, the sooner, the better.

About Political Calculations

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Welcome to the blogosphere's toolchest! Here, unlike other blogs dedicated to analyzing current events, we create easy-to-use, simple tools to do the math related to them so you can get in on the action too! If you would like to learn more about these tools, or if you would like to contribute ideas to develop for this blog, please e-mail us at:

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