Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

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Federal Coach: Dealing with employee unease during the presidential transition

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

As often happens during presidential transitions, some civil servants experience a great deal of anxiety, presenting a management challenge for career leaders.

Since the presidential election in November, the questions coming to career federal leaders from employees have been fast and furious. What promises will the president-elect act on? What will happen to my program? Will there be a hiring freeze or pay cuts? How will our mission and goals be affected? Will civil service rules be changed? What if I feel as though a personal part of my identity has come under attack?

With the wide range of questions, many are struggling with the right approach without having the conversations become too personal or political. After speaking with dozens of experienced leaders during the past few weeks, here is some of their collective wisdom.

As a starting point, it is important to listen and to be empathetic with employees who are feeling a bit lost amid the transition. Help them sort what is fact versus speculation and what is really bothering them. Is it about your agency’s future management and policies? Is it a feeling of helplessness or something within their control? Are their concerns overblown?

If the main concern is about the day-to-day work life and the new management coming in, remind them that most of the leadership — the career executives and supervisors — are more likely to affect their work environment than are the senior political leaders. Let them know you will work to retain and sustain the culture you have established.

As new internal management processes evolve, work with your team to determine the best approach to implementation so that they can remain involved in determining what their future looks like in the agency. If your employees’ concerns are more focused on policies, remind them of their role as civil servants in our federal government is to support any administration regardless of their own political perspectives.

Especially during a transition, it’s important to focus on the tasks at hand more than the policies that may or may not emerge. You do not know at this point whether your programs will continue unaffected, expand or be curtailed. And remind employees that the gears of government take time to turn, so any changes are unlikely to be immediate. Focus instead on encouraging employees to do extraordinary work, deliver measurable results and remain focused on the citizens they are serving.

Should any of your employees share deeply personal concerns, be prepared to draw a line where you are willing to engage as a supervisor. If someone is so deeply opposed to the approach of a new administration, don’t be afraid to help them find another opportunity more aligned with their values. Also consider referring them to your human resources department or employee assistance programs.

And just like any time of change, you will also need to adapt. Employees cannot be left to feel isolated. Bring them together to solve problems and come up with collective solutions to agency challenges. By doing so, you will send a powerful signal that whatever lies ahead, whether it be hiring freezes, budget battles or program and policy shifts — the team can handle adversity by working together.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Jan 03, 2017 at 1:27 PM

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