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As Sequestration Looms, How to Handle Survivor’s Guilt

Image via Phil Holmes/

Furlough, retention, sequestration, hiring freeze—terms synonymous with what seems like never-ending workforce uncertainty and the frightening prospect of unwelcome change.

In light of all this, “how do you keep employees motivated?” asked a reader in a recent Ask EIG column. The question came from “Anonymous” and I found myself curious: What motivated him/her to ask the question? Why remain anonymous? What was the origin of the concern—was it colleagues, subordinates or personal? My focus quickly wandered from the question itself to the motivation behind the question, or what I often refer to as “beneath the organizational surface.”

What lies beneath the organizational surface is the most important element of understanding an office or agency as a whole. It reminded me of a book focused on occupational survivors syndrome by David Noer called, “Healing the Wounds: Overcoming the Trauma of Layoffs and Revitalizing Downsized Organizations.” While most aren’t “overcoming the trauma” of layoffs, many are coping with an undeniably volatile and highly uncertain environment. The realization that as Baby Boomers retire they may not be replaced leaves those behind in an increasingly tight spot. The long term effect of this trend will have direct implications on motivation and pose long-term challenges for morale, productivity, and team building.

Knowing this, how can you help your team cope? There are three places to start:

Understand the concept of survivor’s guilt:

Leaders/Managers/Supervisors often inadvertently focus attention on challenges external to the control of the organization. When in reality workforce uncertainty might be more efficiently addressed from an internal perspective. Take for example the remnants of an organizational environment taunted with the uncertainty of furlough, retention, sequestration, and now a hiring freeze. How has this left the employees? Jaded or suspicious (maybe), unmotivated (probably). Similar to the analogy Noer references in his book, the emotional baggage of those who remain is often more significant than what is lost. Those left behind need to know they are there for a reason and that the mission continues. 

Identify the beneath the surface challenge:

Focus on your team. Decreased motivation from employees who are constantly looking “over their shoulder” or waiting for the next “ball to drop” should be anticipated if not expected. The manifestation will be unique from organization to organization. Create an environment that encourages dialogue. Transparency will help ease people’s tension and build trust.    

Strengthen and support the workforce:

Integrate a support structure. I often hear leaders say things like “it could be worse.” While that may be true, it should not be assumed that feeling is universal. For some, the guilt or pressure of remaining behind is far worse than being let go. Consider implementing focus groups, work teams or coffee cliques that are assembled to provide a representative voice for the organization and a safe outlet to vent and express concern. Don’t let the challenges before you rip your team apart, use this time of uncertainty to bind your team together.

Shift the focus, understand your employees, validate concerns, create and manage support. When so much is unknown, these are the things that remain firmly in your control. 

Image via Phil Holmes/

Dr. Victoria M. Grady is an Assistant Professorial Lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington D.C., Principal Consultant at PivotPoint Business Solutions and co-author of The Pivot Point: Success in Organizational Change.

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