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A Guide For Federal Leaders In a Time of Uncertainty

Managers and supervisors don’t have the luxury of indulging in their worst fears—there’s too much work to be done.

Uncertainty can breed mistrust, suspicion, anxiety and a host of other negative emotions, all of which can make it very difficult to focus on work. But supervisors and managers don’t have the luxury of indulging in their worst fears—they serve a critical role in maintaining and building a productive work environment where employees stay focused on the mission.

While federal managers may not be able to alleviate employees’ concerns or forecast what future years will bring, they still can serve as effective and trusted leaders. Here are some tips for navigating stressful times:    

1. Heighten your sense of empathy. Robert Greenleaf’s influential work on servant-leadership expressed in the Essentials of Servant Leadership recognizes empathy as a fundamental attribute of effective leadership. As a leader, you need to recognize that your employees have myriad concerns, including their future employment, bills, tuition, child care, and elder care, all of which affects their attention and energy at work. Your focus cannot be solving their personal problems, but you can ease their unwarranted fears and help them address their work more effectively. By recognizing their perspectives, you will build their trust in you and enhance your own self-efficacy as a leader. How do you enhance your empathy? Start with a simple conversation with each of your employees. Ask them how they are doing and how you can help them with any work problems or concerns they are confronting.  

2. Understand and reaffirm your agency's history and values. Edgar Schein’s work Organizational Culture and Leadership is a highly useful resource for understanding why shared values and your role as a leader are key in modelling these values on a daily basis. Values are important for the wellbeing of your agency and for instilling in your employees their purpose and commitment to ideals of great significance.  Remind yourself and your employees of the sacrifices of both current and former agency employees in performing stellar work in accordance with deeply held agency values. Consider inviting former employees from your agency to speak about their experiences in adhering to their values, overcoming challenges, and learning important lessons from these experiences.

You can reinforce high performance through simple, non-monetary measures such as offering extra time-off and recognizing employees during meetings. A powerful way to promote organizational learning and agency values is by fostering communities of practices, or CoPs, within your organization. These allow employees to share their concerns or problems and  learn from one another by sharing knowledge and expertise.  

3. Create and foster greater autonomy among your employees. Daniel Pink’s Drive focuses on creating the conditions for intrinsic motivation. Pink recognizes the major theoretical contributions of psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, who conducted extensive research in the field of motivation. Deci and Ryan recognized that sustained commitment to work is premised on autonomy in building employees’ sense of intrinsic motivation. Another leading psychologist, Bernard Bass, expressed in his theory of transformational leadership that effective leaders treat those they lead as individuals, understanding their unique strengths, and provide them with the autonomy to accomplish goals that enhance the organization and its mission.

Consider providing employees with the direction and autonomy to experiment with new pilot programs, explore new efficiencies in work processes, and build their motivation and efficacy—both as individual performers and working as a team. Ask for volunteers to form a small group to work on a known problem area or ask your employees to generate ideas and lead projects, reporting back to you for support and encouragement.  

4. Enhance your negotiation skills. Roger Fisher and William Ury wrote the classic Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In. The book provides excellent advice for enhancing your negotiation skills and understanding the underlying psychological reasons for adopting certain positions and tactics. Negotiation prowess affects your persuasiveness and ability to represent the interests of your organization, the needs of your employees, and your own career.

5.  Sharpen your financial acumen. Blair Cook’s The Illiterate Executive: An Executive's Handbook for Mastering Financial Acumen offers an excellent primer for developing your knowledge of financial concepts and building your financial skills. Beyond this and other reference materials, you should develop expertise in your agency's appropriations and budget process, not simply for understanding immediate funding constraints, but for conceptualizing and initiating operational improvements which could save money and improve efficiency. If possible, ask your manager or executive for the opportunity to learn more about how budgetary decision-making occurs and how you may have the opportunity to gain experience in budget formulation. The experience you gain will build your capacity to understand agency work and policy decisions in more informed ways for the benefit of your organization, your employees, and yourself.

6. Enhance your coalition building skills.  The book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, by Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, Al Switzler, Ron McMillan and Stephen R. Covey, provides strategies and techniques for enhancing your influence in areas of disagreement and strong emotions. By learning to reflect on your own assumptions, goals, and the context of a dialogue with others, you can enhance your skills and abilities to engage more effectively with others and find common ground.  Certainly, the art of dialogue and coalition building can only be perfected through multiple trial and error experiences. But at times when you need to be as influential as possible for yourself, your employees and your organization, it’s well worth investing time and effort in improving these skills.   

John R. Malgeri, J.D., Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor to the Chief Human Capital Officer at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He has also served as a National Treasury Employees Union Chapter President and as a member of the Board of Editors for the Public Manager. Deb Cohen, Ph.D., is an executive with more than 25 years of experience advising, speaking and guiding organizations. Cohen is a former SVP, with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Robert Jordan, Ph.D., designs instruction and learning experiences at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The views expressed are their own and do not represent any federal agency or other organization.