Managing Guerrilla Employees

Do you have “guerilla employees” in your organization who work around (or against) their leadership?  How do you deal with them?

This is the focus of a provocative article in the current issue of the Public Administration Review by Maxwell School professor Rosemary O’Leary, “Guerilla Employees:  Should Managers Nurture, Tolerate, or Terminate Them?”

O’Leary describes one early experience of working with a creative and passionate employee in a state environmental agency.  The person was dedicated to environmental concerns and worked clandestinely with environmental groups and the media, leaked data, and attended public hearings opposing his agency’s leadership. O’Leary’s boss said: “Fire the bastard!”

She dispassionately observes: “Here is an example of someone trying to accomplish outside the organization what he could not accomplish within the organization”– without describing the fate of the employee!  She notes, though, that there are three vantage points for looking at guerrilla government: a form of bureaucratic politics, an approach to organizations and management, and an expression of ethics.

Bureaucratic Politics. From this vantage point, a guerrilla bureaucrat “is a mutant cross-pollination of policy entrepreneur and the politics of expertise.”  Street level bureaucrats know how the organization works, and how to manipulate it.  From this vantage point, employees that love the organization and its mission will defy leaders (political or career) that they perceive to be undermining the organization.

Organizations and Management.  This vantage point contrasts with traditional hierarchical views of government that see organizations as closed systems.  Guerrillas who have this perspective see a world of networked governance, where the focus is on the ultimate policy outcomes and their impact on citizens, and do not stand up for the internal politics of their agency or program.  This approach focuses on open systems and an organizational culture that broadly embraces the ethos of public service.  Their allegiance to their organization as their first priority; instead, they see themselves as “doing the right thing.”  Interestingly, this seems to be an approach being fostered by the Obama Administration’s recent emphasis on cross-government “problem-solving networks.”

Ethics.  Some guerrilla bureaucrats have a keen sense of ethics that they hold above all else.  There are ethical obligations, such as to democracy, the law, and the nation as a whole, but the public servant taking this perspective (sometimes fairly, sometimes too far) can be seen as a whistleblower, or a snitch to the inspectors general.  As O’Leary notes: “. . it is sometimes difficult to sort out the ‘ethical’ guerrillas from the’unethical’ guerrillas, the guided from the misguided.” Are they a canary in the coal mine or a delusional fanatic?

O’Leary offers five “harsh realities” to managers, noting that “Whether seen as good or bad, the potential role of government guerillas in influencing policies and programs is immense:”

  • Guerrilla government is here to stay
  • Guerrillas can do it to you in ways you’ll never know
  • All guerrilla activity is not created equal
  • Most public organizations are inadequately equipped to deal effectively with guerrilla government.
  • The tensions inherent in guerrilla government will never be resolved

So how do you manage in the face of these realities?  O’Leary surveyed experienced leaders and identified six techniques:

  • Create an organization culture that accepts, welcomes, and encourages candid dialogue and debate.
  • Listen.
  • Understand the organization both formally and informally.
  • Separate the people from the problem.
  • Create multiple channels for dissent.
  • Create dissent boundaries and know when to stop.

O’Leary concludes, saying that “public programs need to be pushed outside their safe zones. . . so they can start to think differently.” Encouraging divergent thinking, formal and informal networks, and dispute systems are all ways of creating multiple outlets for people with ideas who can strengthen public agencies and the vibrancy of government.


4 thoughts on “Managing Guerrilla Employees

  1. When Doug Farbrother came by my hole in the wall over in Rosslyn to talk to “ole mole” he said “my boss (Al Gore) would call this “guerrilla management.” I said “you have met Marshall Tito.” In alliance with some others of my type, plus the the stealth managers, we could keep the Fed running and do public service. John, you are one of first people to call these ad hoc organizations: “the back room networks” and you liked them. I got into trouble many times when I was given an off-the-wall and maybe illegal direction, and during the argument I said I took an Oath when I entered the Federal Service to uphold the Constitution.

    1. Thanks, Norm. I thought of you and your colleagues when I saw this article. There were a number of entrepreneurial “reinventors” who probably fit this mold, especially in the Reinvention Labs piloting new ideas that may not have been popular, but made a difference for citizens, customers and fellow employees.

  2. Terminate them! The biggest mistakes I have made as a leader is allowing such employees to undermine my leadership. Happily as I grew older and more experienced, this became less of a problem

    If they can’t help you, that’s one thing; if they refuse to help you, that’s another thing. There can be only on leader with the responsibility for the work of the organization. With responsibility comes accountability and that cannot be shared.

  3. Nurture them. As a guerrilla employee in the private sector I may be a little biased, but the guerrillas are an organization’s counterbalance to the prigs. Blind adherence to rules can cause more harm than good and often these rules are made not for the benefit of the organization, but as a backlash to some technological blunder or over-regulation from fear rather than reason. Guerrilla employees are what you get when innovation becomes stifled, when learning new things is discouraged, when obvious solutions are ignored and when your employees care enough about the organization or it’s customers to work in secret.

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