These are challenging times, but there are ways to help your staff.
The world has changed tremendously over the last few months. As of mid-June, more than 120,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. The global pandemic has forced millions to shelter in place in their homes. With unemployment soaring and civil unrest widespread, many are struggling to cope right now.
What can federal managers do to support their employees during this difficult time, when many federal employees have become full-time teleworkers? Here are six ideas for federal executives to uplift beleaguered staff during this challenging time:
1. Be real. Some people believe leaders must be flawless and know all the answers. But leaders are not perfect; nobody is. There is something very powerful about honesty and vulnerability when engaging your employees. It shows your humanity and ultimately, it seems the most beloved and powerful leaders are often the most human.
2. Practice gratitude. The best leader I ever worked for gave credit and thanks regularly and sincerely. She appreciated others at every opportunity. It wasn’t just that she felt gratitude, more importantly, she expressed it regularly and generously, both privately and publicly. Whether it was thanking someone for sending an important email or lauding their skills in drafting an impactful report, she was quick to say, “thank you” and explain why what the person did was important. As a result, people felt seen, heard and valued—and inspired to do even more good work for her. Expressing gratitude is not only the right thing to do, it’s the strategic thing to do. And you do not have to be in a position of authority to exercise this magic. You can be a colleague, a customer or a subordinate—practicing gratitude will reap a rich return.
3. Leverage your organization’s resources. Whether it is fully utilizing technology or tapping your network of professionals, use resources strategically to help employees reach their goals. Leverage all the tools and people who support you. Think creatively about what resources you could exploit to help employees navigate rough waters to reach your organization’s goals.
4. Trust your employees. The old model of leadership was top-down: one person in charge at the top instructing those below on what to do. But in this new era, leadership is more about facilitating collaboration toward common goals and trusting employees to come up with well-informed solutions. They understand the problems, so empower them to voice their ideas, identify solutions, and implement them.
5. Be a storyteller. Good leaders remember that they operate as part of a large system, and while they may sometimes focus on details, they must never lose sight of the bigger picture. Communicate your vision of the desired end-state or ideal future from your vantage point, because one of your functions as a leader is to help create your organization’s culture. Tell a compelling story of how your vision will achieve a brighter future for your team and your organization. Keep the big picture in mind. There is tremendous value in the story you tell your people to help make sense about where your organization is now, where it is headed, and why that plan makes good sense.
6. See challenges as opportunities. Optimism is something that can be learned and practiced. An optimistic outlook can reduce stress, help you be healthier, live longer and be more successful. So as an individual, it can be very powerful to implement optimism in your daily life. But as a leader, you have the power to not only model optimism, but also foster it. You can both acknowledge and reframe difficulties so that team members feel motivated to step up to challenges. Good leaders always remember: With great challenges come great opportunities.
These simple steps can have very powerful effects in the workplace and beyond. Be authentic and grateful while leveraging resources smartly, trusting your employees, telling compelling stories about the big picture, and practicing optimism. If you can do these things during this time of challenge and uncertainty, you will help support your employees to bring their best selves to work and get through this challenging time together in positive and constructive ways.
Angela Cotellessa has a doctorate in Human & Organizational Learning from George Washington University. Starting in 2007, she worked as a non-political employee at the Executive Office of the President, and since 2013, has worked at the Office of Personnel Management’s Center for Leadership Development. The views expressed here are her own.