Managing a ‘victimized’ federal workforce after the shutdown

October 18, 2013

Park Service police officers stand on duty at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. Barriers went down at National Park Service sites and thousands of furloughed federal workers began returning to work throughout the country. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Back pay is coming for furloughed federal workers. A January 1 percent pay raise was part of the budget measure that ended the partial government shutdown. Joe Biden even visited federal offices bearing muffins.

But however much those gestures might help to lessen the sting of a 16-day government shutdown, federal managers will still face a range of emotional, technological and logistical hurdles as they try to reestablish the day-to-day flow and get their teams back to work. Many federal employees say they are happy to be back on the job and invigorated to be working again.

That could quickly change shape, however, as reality sets in. Managers will need to rethink how to prioritize an overwhelming backlog of work, and manage the office politics of workers who now know whether they are considered essential or not.

And all of this must be done amid the emotional uncertainty of whether it will happen again come January, when another budget deadline looms. "Some people think of this as workers coming back from a 2.5 week vacation," says John Hudak, a fellow with the Brookings Institution's Center for Effective Public Management. "But the way I like to think of it is people coming back from a 2.5 week bereavement leave." The emotional turmoil of the shutdown for many federal workers, he says, has been "agonizing," especially coming after sequester cuts, years of pay freezes and so much recent anti-government rhetoric. "The federal workforce has literally been victimized."

The first thing leaders will need to do, public management experts say, is the exact opposite of what feels right given their overflowing inboxes.

"Put aside the tasks and repair the relationships," says Robert Tobias, director of the Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University's School of Public Affairs. Federal managers should spend time reconnecting with their team, acknowledging that the first few days will be a time to vent. The biggest emotion people are going to feel is anger, Tobias says, and "the only way to deal with anger like that is to name it and to make it discussable—to make it okay to feel that anger."

Shortly thereafter, however, he says managers will have to start wading through the sea of work that washed up in everyone's absence. Simply expecting people to "do more with less" or slog through all those tasks isn't leadership, Tobias says. It is the managers' job to re-prioritize the work, tell people what can be put off for later and reallocate some work to people who have less on their plates. "That's a significant leadership responsibility that is often ignored," he says. Telling people to get it done "will feed anger as opposed to mitigating or ameliorating it."

One thing working in federal managers' favor is that much of the anger is directed outward rather than at those within the organization. "Emotions won't be directed at their peers," says David Costanza, an associate professor of organizational psychology at George Washington University who has consulted with government agencies. "They'll be directed at Congress."

Still, there are bound to be some federal employees who resent being called non-essential, as well as others who have been working every day and disdain those who've had time off to "furlax," as some have called the furlough experience. To get both sides past these politics, Costanza suggests focusing people on what workplace psychologists call "superordinate" goals, or team goals that everybody can unite around and work toward together. It should be mission-driven, but specific enough that it also feels concrete and attainable.

Another way to bring people together, says John Palguta, the vice president of policy for the Partnership for Public Service, is to make them part of the solution. Managers should get workers' feedback on redundant steps that can be eliminated, processes that can be streamlined or work that can be simplified at a time when there is such a profound crush of things to do. "Let them manage up," Palguta says. "We need to be welcoming employees back, but we also need to be asking for their feedback."

That should help not only in cutting through the huge stack of work, but in preventing employees from checking out of their jobs. The shutdown has already prompted some federal workers to rethink the security of their careers, and Palguta expects the turnover rate among the federal workforce to continue to tick up. He's already hearing about private employers who see this is as a good time to try to poach talented employees who may be viewing their government jobs more warily.

The biggest worry, however, isn't really how many workers will leave. It's how many of those who stick around could become actively disengaged from their jobs. That's especially the case given there's another budget deadline looming just after the holidays. The only way to manage that uncertainty, Tobias says, is for leaders to speak openly about it and remind workers why they came to the federal government in the first place. Still, he admits he is "pessimistic" about the effect that unease will have on federal worker engagement: "A lot of people aren’t going to acknowledge this is a crisis."

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

What federal managers should do when the shutdown ends

Only 13 percent of people worldwide actually like going to work

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · October 17, 2013