Working in the public sector comes with a lot of red tape. So how do leaders work to navigate bureaucracy and hierarchy? Today’s guest is Le’Angela Ingram, a Principal at Ingram Consulting Group. Le’Angela brings over 20 years of experience helping organizations in the public and private sectors improve their effectiveness and promote affirmative action when it comes to diversity. She joins Dr. Kevin Sansberry to discuss what it’s like to work and lead in the public sector and the misconceptions that go with it. Le’Angela also explains the concept of collaborative hierarchical systems with insights on leadership.
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How To Navigate Bureaucracy And Hierarchy? With Le’Angela Ingram
If I have to ask a random group of ten people how much they love bureaucracy, how many people do you think will raise their hands? I’m sure many of you are thinking zero because that is exactly where my mind goes. The fact is we need systems and processes in our workplace. However, when the red tape gets to be too much, we have a whole host of problems. Our guest is Le’Angela Ingram. She brings many years of experience in a variety of private, public and academic organizations. Her experience in the sectors, specifically to various entities in the US government, is welcome as we dig deep into bureaucracy, trust and various forms of toxicity. Let’s get to it.
We have Le’Angela Ingram. How are you?
I am great. I’m very excited about the opportunity to engage in this leadership conversation with you and your readers.
You’re the first person that is coming from the public sector from an experience standpoint. I’m appreciative of your experience because a lot of people on Instagram reach out to me about, “You need to talk about government or the public sector. Why is this always in the news? You need to talk about this.” I’m happy for you to be able to share your insights and expertise.
I’m excited about the opportunity to at least create a window and to what my observations have been over the last many years in my work in the public sector.
Before we jump into the content, I want to give you an opportunity to give a little bit about yourself, who you are and what work have you been doing over the past many years?Confidence is really important if you want to lead in any capacity, but specifically within the public sector. Click To Tweet
I believe my sweet spot is around consulting, and one facet is the Ingram Consulting Group. That’s what it is that we do. We do consulting, coaching and training. I’ve been doing it within that space as well as nonprofit and other sectors, but because I’m a Washingtonian, my passion is around public service and supporting leaders to discover their inherent excellence. That’s the work that I do in those three capacities to also include systems thinking and systems that work within the context of the public sector.
Where are you based?
I’m based in the Nation’s Capital in Washington DC. My mailing address, however, is in the suburbs outside, but I’m a native Washingtonian. I live in DC. I support and serve the communities for which I live and support as a Washingtonian and a lot of the transplants, folks who come here for government work or for their education and have stayed. While I’m a Washingtonian, I’m partial to Washingtonians. I’m clear that it’s a transient area. I’m located in the Nation’s Capital.
When you think about toxic leadership, and as you were getting on the show, I always want to get people’s experience to that term and toxic leadership. With that being said, what has been your experience with it? Thus far, what have you learned?
As I was thinking about this notion of toxicity and how it shows up in my work, one of the primary areas is around arrogance, this notion that I have been appointed and I’m the subject matter expert. I know everyone else must be subordinate and subservient to me in my leadership, my style, whether I’m right, wrong or indifferent, “How dare you to question me?” This notion of arrogance. Within the public sector, hierarchical leadership is the way of bureaucracy. There is a way of moving and living within a hierarchical system known as a bureaucratic system. Sometimes this notion that, “I am the leader and I am boss,” is skewed because you can have a hierarchical system be very collaborative and participatory.
In many instances, my observation is that people don’t understand what collaborative hierarchical systems might look like. I see that. A level of incompetence is a component of toxicity. If I’m incompetent, then I can abuse, bully and treat folks in ways that I would deem as unethical and certainly not a characteristic that would embody an effective leader. I can go on and on. I’ll just name those as a few to engage our conversations around the arrogance, hierarchical, and a level of lack of competence.
With that arrogance, one of the things that comes up a lot is you have those leaders who, I’m not going to say they’re narcissistic, but they exhibit those traits of narcissism where it’s like super self-centered into their world view, where they don’t allow others to get in or get the point in. How does that show up in the public sector and how has it been detrimental from what you’ve seen?
I walk and work across political parties. My observations are not limited to one political party, but in general, across parties. As it relates to your questions around how narcissism shows up and its impact, I would submit to you this notion of political appointees without any experience in a bureaucratic system. It’s damaging the relationships with those that are in place, that is the civil servants. The civil servant’s role is around supporting political appointees across parties.
If I come in and I don’t know what I don’t know, then my posture is one of arrogance and oftentimes the abuse and misuse of the civil service. That’s one of my observations by way of being narcissistic and arrogant within the system versus employing a level of humanity and humility to say, “I don’t know what I don’t know. Let’s figure out how it is that we might partner and collaborate in the service of the American people.”
With that being said, it takes a lot for somebody to even admit that they don’t know what they don’t know. I got voted in or appointed. I’m thinking I’m going to stop right now. I got to come in and say, “I don’t know what I don’t know.” This is not just a leadership thing. This is a self-confidence issue with a lot of people. What’s your advice as it relates to that admission of, “I don’t know what I don’t know,” and not trying to act like you know everything? What would you give advice for that?
I would simply submit that confidence is important if you want to lead in any capacity, but specifically within the public sector and understanding the importance of relationship building because you can leave, but if you don’t have anybody following you, then it’s for naught. We’re talking about leadership toxicity and, “I’m the man or the woman. I’m having turnover,” like exponential rates.
I simply submit to you that this speaks to a level of incompetence, particularly around leadership skills. Personally, I believe and you can look into all the leadership literature that says, “Leadership primarily is about getting results through and by others. If I can’t get results because I think I’m the cat’s meow when I have all of the answers, then Houston, we got a problem.”You can lead, but if you don't have anybody following you, then it's for naught. Click To Tweet
You could imagine how myopic decisions will be made if it’s from literally one person. I’m a big believer of the fact of, the collective brain is always going to be better than one brain. How can we get leaders to feel safe to know it’s okay to not know stuff. One of the things I used to do a lot was to admit to my staff why I hired them in particular. I’m like, “I hired you because I am not a details person. You are great at that.” It does two things, “I’m admitting I got self-awareness. I’m telling you where I’m not good at, but I’m also telling you your superpower in this system here.” That’s not normal. I have traits that I need to work on. That’s not natural for people. What do you think about stuff like that?
I would submit to you the whole point. We’re talking about emotional intelligence around self-awareness and self-management, but I would submit to you also this notion of being a systems thinker. It would have said that no one part is greater than the sum of all of its parts. If you are a systems thinker, I think to your point that I can say I’m one part of the system and you are another part based on your subject matter expertise.
That’s why you are here to advice and counsel me around the things that I don’t know, because I think part of that arrogance and narcissism is around thinking that the world revolves around me and I know everything, which is indicia of insecurity because none of us know it all, being able to own that and have your ego needs in check.
A lot of this piece about leadership has helped people think, and I hope people read this, it is self-work because if you have retention issues or organizational culture issues, it always starts with the leadership. I don’t know a lot of leaders like, “It’s the people.” It starts with the leadership.
I couldn’t agree with you more because this is when I am doing coaching, particularly for folks who are looking to change careers or jobs. One of the first things I say is when you ask the question about, “What’s the turnover of the leadership?” If it’s been a revolving door, Houston, there’s a problem, because there’s somebody somewhere in this system that is difficult to work with that are requiring high levels of access in this system. You would need to proceed with caution versus one. There’s been a level of stability, leadership and staffing.
One thing we hear about in the public sector a lot is flight. We hear about people leaving. One of the things that grind my gears is when you see retention issues, people leave, but those empowered play these games and they say stuff like, “They left for greater opportunities. They had a good opportunity. They’re doing great things. That’s natural. People are going to leave. Millennials are not going to work everywhere forever.” They use every excuse in the book before even admitting it’s a leadership or organizational culture issue. I always ask leaders, “Why did they even start looking in the first place? How are they even attracted away in the first place?”
We can’t blame it on social dynamics, COVID or anything. We can’t use that forever. Some people will try. What do you think is important for a leader to realize? Let’s say I’m a leader right now, and I’m having issues or trouble. I don’t realize this stuff. I need to take a hard look at my climate and the impact that I might have. Especially leaders in the public sector, what would you be telling them?
This is not like a newsflash. What we know in the public sector, Gallup and other agencies have made a whole lot of money around this notion of employee engagement. If you have a bunch of employees and you’re hosting a meeting, for example, you’re asking questions in the meeting, there are crickets, and nobody is offering up a suggestion or any such thing, chances are there’s a problem somewhere in that leadership style, whether they are the walking wounded because sometimes you could come and as a new leader, you are willing to collaborate and engage, but the staff are like the remnants of wounded folks because of your predecessor, for example.
New leaders in the federal sector, whether it’s state or federal, to figure out, “What’s the history of your predecessors? What’s the level of damage, trauma and woundedness that might exist with your staff?” From that place on, Greenridge and his work on servant leadership talks about this need for healing. That’s too touchy a feeling, “We don’t want to do that. We want to get results.” You can’t get results with a bunch of wounded folks.
To your point, that is a result. One of the things I talk about a lot is organizational trauma and the importance of healing. Just because a toxic leader is not in the system anymore, that doesn’t mean their impact lift. The impact stays.
Our brains will create those defense mechanisms forever until somebody creates this environment where I can heal.No one part is greater than the sum of its parts. Click To Tweet
I can’t tell you the number of organizations that I go into within the federal context because I also worked at the state level here in DC around the public sector, but I can’t tell you the number of people that I go in and have a conversation with. They say, “This leader did this, that and the other.” I was like, “When did that happen?” Sometimes, it’s as far back as 1968. This is 2000-whatever. Both are still traumatized by what it is that a particular leader did to them, their system or their project. There’s been no space or place for healing conversation. We don’t have time for that touchy-feely stuff. We got real work to do.
That’s the way we have always done it or it has come from. I don’t think people are stupid or anything like that. A lot of times, that’s the way we always do it. It comes from a place of previous harm, past harm and trauma. They are not going to say the second part, but because the last time we tried it, we got yelled at, berated, demotion or people got laid off, my friends got laid off. That’s why the way we always do it in some situations.
One of the things I’m curious about, especially with the public sector, is bureaucracy. It is a big form of toxicity that emerges in systems where you do not have a lot of trust. There’s a certain red tape you got to have for documentation purposes, then there are other systems of red tape where I have it because I don’t press you to do your job, or I don’t trust people or departments. Talk to me a little bit about bureaucracy in that public sector.
That’s a phenomenon that is misunderstood when exploring and saying yes to a public sector job and this notion of the checks, balances, and then the different branches of government. The challenge that I see is this notion of coming from the private sector thinking that, “I can get a result. I can get it quickly,” and not understanding this notion around bureaucracy, which means there are 3 or 4 signatory levels, which is intended at its Genesis to ensure a level of integrity of processes.
That was the initial intent. What it is something different, but the intent is around ensuring integrity. I don’t know that folks who are not familiar or accustomed and working in a bureaucracy understand how long it takes to get things done. Inherent in that comes integrity issues. I’m going to try and circumvent the system so that I can hurry up and get a result. You do so in violations of federal regulations and federal laws, which is a whole other ball of wax at that.
At the core of it, people need to follow federal regulations and laws, but systems are also within law. We also need to be able to look for ways to be efficient and have our processes match the words we say. For example, if I say, “I trust you,” I need to maintain the legal piece, but I need to also have processes that show you that same amount of trust as well. An example could be, let’s say, you had an employee who reported to you and it’s like, “Do I need to review every single thing they do?” No.
Where are those areas in which they have the creative freedom or that they don’t and be clear about it? One of the biggest things that come up from the readers and clients that I work with around the world, especially related to public sector roles in the United States, is diversity and the notion of how sometimes playing politics comes up. I’m just curious, what traits do you think are important as it relates to being successful when we think about diversity and being in the public sector?
I would say a couple of things. First is the level of diversity awareness. What does that mean when we talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, and now accessibility? This whole merit of understanding self-identity, how you identify and how you navigate a terrain that may be here 2 and 4 is not very diverse. Look at Western Culture. Moving into a system expecting that there are going to be high levels of equity is self-awareness, self-management and a reality check because it doesn’t exist in the public sector to a largest extent, notice it in the private sector.
When we talk about leadership, one of the skills and the competencies that need to be measured and for folks to be held accountable to is this notion of understanding what diversity means. What my observations are is that folks don’t understand the difference between diversity, equity and affirmative action. There’s this whole miscommunication and misunderstanding that affirmative action means that you hire incompetent people of color or gender, where in fact, affirmative action is about expanding your reach to make sure you target a population of people, whether it’s women, female engineers, African-Americans, because the standard is still the same.
It requires a baccalaureate. If you’re Black, you’re a Black person with a baccalaureate of five years of experience. I find that a lot of leaders don’t understand what those differences are, vis-à-vis diversity, EEO, affirmative action and now accessibility. What does that mean? A lot of folks are clueless. It should be a prerequisite for hiring folks. It needs to be a standard question in the interview process, a behavioral question. The interviewing staff gets a sense of a level of awareness that this individual might have or lack.
I’m glad you brought that up because that’s something that the public sector innovated. It’s a form of action. One of the things that people tend to assume is, “You gave that person that role because of their salient demographic characteristic or protected class.” To your point, all job postings in every sector need to ensure that they are adequately marketed to different populations like, “What’s your metrics on that?” A lot of hiring processes post and pray. They post on Indeed or LinkedIn and pray they get a diverse pool, but they don’t even have criteria for diverse pools in most cases.
You need extended outreach. It’s this like, “Why we couldn’t find any?” When I teach diversity, what I say to people, “If you’re a leader, don’t you ever say out of your mouth, ‘We couldn’t find it.’”This notion of power is all perceived. A lot of it is delegated power. Click To Tweet
That’s a you failure, not anything else.
If you’re looking for folks, for example, around DC, I say, “Where would you go to look for folks with disabilities? How about the Veteran’s Administration? You’re in DC, goal your debt for the hearing impaired.” There are opportunities like what’s your mental models thinking outside of the USAJobs.gov or all of these other places where you typically post, hope and pray. You’re going to get a candidate from a diverse pool.
We blame the populations that we’re trying to capture for, “They don’t have enough degrees.” I’m like, “That’s not your excuse. You need to have a better process. You need to spend more time learning how to hire equitably.” One of the things I want to take us to is hearing about your words of wisdom. You have many years of experience in the public sector. You’ve done a lot of work as it relates to DE&I, true equity work and your consulting. As we think about our well moment, what words of wisdom do you want to leave our readers?
A couple of things. Be sure you’re sure about your integrity. You got to know who you are and what you stand for. Get clear around your values, vision and mission. Be prepared to stand on it, come what may. As the winds come and go, you got to be prepared to stand. As it relates to it, equity also understands your personal power. If you have your education, all of your credentials and work experience, stand on that and don’t be swayed and do whatever documentation you need to do to support any decisions that you make. This is not just the public sector, but I would say fraternally in the public sector. Lastly, you got to have a sense of confidence in who you are.
As a person of color, as a minority, whether it’s a gender issue or sexual orientation, get clear about who you are and not be swayed because this notion of power, particularly for folks who come to DC, who are from smaller towns and they think they’ve arrived to the big city, DC is the South. We are a little country town, but because we are the Nation’s Capital, folks get all confused at they’re at this seat of power and this power becomes intoxicating. Get your power from your individual person. You take that into the organization and leverage with the organizational power, but get clear about your own personal power.
I love that you talked about that power notion because with a lot of power, sometimes people allow power that they’re bestowed on, they get through their role or whatever to erase who they are as people. More so than any sector in that public sector, we’re relying on representatives to serve the people. That’s a dangerous phenomenon because it happens in every industry, but it’s even more dangerous when we talk about the public can meet them serving.
One of the things you lifted up that I love is the fact of before we even think about wielding power, have you willed the power to learn who you are and have that personal power? If you don’t, it’s easy to erase something you don’t know. If I don’t know myself or value myself, it’s easy to erase that and follow someone else or something else.
It’s intoxicating. It’s very seductive in the city. If you are not grounded in your own personal values, you take a whiff of the power and what it is that you can get done. It’s easy to go straight, but if you’re grounded in who you are, you know your own personal power, you don’t drink that Kool-Aid and you are not drunk by the perception because this notion of power is all perceived. A lot of it is delegated power. Like you got it, you can take it away. Trust and believe. If you don’t believe it, you look at the stats.
I want to thank you for this wonderful conversation and dive into the public sector. Before we wrap up, I wanted to give you time to share how people can reach you and some initiatives that you work on or that you are connected to?
You can reach me at LeAngela@Consultingram.com. You can also find me on LinkedIn. The initiative that I’m working on is this notion of transitioning back to the workplace. What I’m finding is that there are high levels of turnover because folks are saying, “I’ve had an opportunity to retire. I’m out. I don’t want to go back to work because in the DMV area of DC, Maryland, and Virginia, traffic is crazy and so folks,” as a result of COVID, that the pandemic and being able to work from home, this virtual workplace space, phenomena and the norms are the things that I’m working most on.
What that might look like for the creation of a new public sector workplace, what that means, the flexibility and the capacity to be agile, to let folks work from home, particularly folks who are traveling from very remote places, to come to work. Those are some of the things that I’m working pretty passionately with leaders on because they’re experiencing high levels phenomenally, turnovers of folks that are not wanting to come back to the office space.
I can definitely see how the hell that could be impactful for continuing diversifying and getting people who may live from different areas. You’re getting people who might have different childcare needs, and dependent care needs, not even children. I see the importance there, especially from a socioeconomic difference. There’s a lot. I love that you’re working on that. I appreciate you mentioning that for folks because I’ve been experiencing and seeing a lot of cookie-cutters back-to-work programs as a response to COVID that have harmed marginalized populations over and above. Thank you for the conversation. I appreciate it. I look forward for us having future conversations and connections.
I welcome the opportunity. Thank you for the opportunity.
Thank you all for reading.
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About Le’Angela Ingram
Le’Angela Ingram brings over 20 years of experience in a variety of private, public, and academic organizations in the areas of Change Management, Staff Training and Development, Career Development, Organization Development, Human Resource Assessment, and Workforce Diversity. Her work efforts focus on improved organization effectiveness, staff skills and employee commitment, and increased employee sensitivity to individual and cultural differences. Selected clients include Washington Hospital Center, US Department of State, US Agency for International Development, US Department of Commerce, US Attorneys’ Office, District of Columbia Superior Court, US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Graduate School USA, US Department of Treasury, US Department of Health and Human Services, Anne Arundel Community College, Johns Hopkins University and The MITRE Corporation.
Ms. Ingram earned a Bachelor of Business Administration and Marketing from Howard University. She also holds a Master of Science in Applied Behavioral Science (Organization and Human Resource Development) from Johns Hopkins University, where she also completed Fellowships in Change Management and Women, Leadership, and Change. She is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Education in Leadership and Learning in Organizations from Vanderbilt University, Candidate 2023. She is certified in Transition Management, Myers Briggs Type Indicator, and Emotional Intelligence – 360 Feedback.
She is the proud Nina to Alex, Kayla, and Brianna and the mother of 2, Dannielle and Joshua. For fun you can find her on blue water beaches, listening to jazz, and investing time with friends and family. As a native Washingtonian, she enjoys seeking out new small venues for dining.