Managing the fear of cutbacks among federal workers
The high-decibel election season that came to a conclusion last week prompted a number of proposals to reduce the size and cost of government, with the federal workforce becoming a prime target for a hiring freeze, a pay freeze, furloughs or other possible cutbacks.
With Republicans set to take control of the House of Representatives in January, many of these proposals will be on the legislative front-burner and, in time, some may become reality. This understandably is causing a great deal of anxiety and fear among federal workers, who can only watch and wait as the political drama plays out.
In the midst of this uncertainty, I'm reminded of Mark Twain's quote about worrying: "I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened."
While your inclination as a manager may be to tell your employees to shrug off worrying about future events you cannot control, that doesn't always work. I know, I'm a worrier myself. I find I'm more relaxed at the end of the day if I prepare for the worst, while quietly hoping for the best.
As a result, I reached out to federal workforce expert and Partnership for Public Service colleague John Palguta and to senior leaders across government to collect their thoughts about how federal leaders can best manage the fear among employees. Here's some of their advice--and some of my own.
• Keep the focus on the mission. One leader I spoke with said, "You cannot cut your way to quality." Remind your employees that what really matters is the organization's ability to deliver results to the American public.
• Find out what concerns your employees have. Maybe your employees are less worried than you are or maybe not. A good way to find out is to simply ask them and then you'll have a better idea of what you need to deal with, if anything.
• Help separate fact from fiction. For every employee who has ever been negatively affected by an actual furlough or reduction in force, there have been many, many more that were not affected but were convinced they were going to be. Let your employees know that you'll share any good or bad news as soon as you receive it.
• Ask your employees for cost-saving ideas and suggestions. At the heart of many of these discussions is a desire or a mandate to reduce costs. Recognizing that people are an agency's most important asset, the federal leaders I'm talking with are looking at ways to cut costs with minimal impact on the people. Ask your staff for creative ideas on how to get the job done and save money.
• Finally, keep the channels of communication open in all directions. As a manager, it's important that you know as much as possible about what's happening and that you share as much as possible with you employees.
Of course, this is only a short list of ideas for how you can best manage the fear among your employees. I'm always interested in hearing from experienced leaders who've been through this experience before, as well as younger leaders who have new ideas for navigating the rough road that may lie ahead.
Please send me your ideas by posting your comments online or sending an email to email@example.com. And please check back on Wednesday, when I speak with Dr. Thomas Waldmann, chief of the metabolism branch at the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute. For more than five decades, Waldmann has made cutting-edge science discoveries that have resulted in great advances in treatment for patients with multiple sclerosis, various types of cancer and AIDS.
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