The Washington Post

Inspiring a badly battered federal workforce

It has not been an easy time for federal employees, with the pay freeze, attacks on the public sector, budget cutbacks and then the threat of a government shutdown.

To add insult to injury, hundreds of thousands of federal workers were told on the eve of the possible shutdown they were non-essential, not exactly an inspiring or motivating message.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was among those who tried to take away that sting, sending an email to employees emphasizing the non-essential designation was part of a legal requirement and does not reflect “on the importance of employees’ individual contributions to the U.S. government or the American people whom we serve.”

Such words are certainly appreciated, and there has been great relief that the government remained open for business. But the lack of information leading up to the threatened shutdown, and last-minute instructions from supervisors at many agencies, left federal workers unnerved and has increased concerns about what may happen during the next potential crisis–enacting the fiscal 2012 budget by Oct. 1.

Unfortunately, as a federal manager, you must now clean up a mess that you didn’t create and cannot control. So, where do you start? Here are some ideas for repairing relationships with your employees and inspiring high performance among a badly battered federal workforce.

· Face the music. Based on the experiences of many federal employees I spoke with last week, agency shutdown preparations ranged from the orderly such as a SharePoint shutdown site and regular all-hands conference calls to the chaotic–employees being told on Friday afternoon whether they were furloughed or would stay on the job.  If your agency was one of the less organized, start by admitting the obvious to you team: The planning and the communication around your agency’s possible shutdown were less than ideal. Then give your team an opportunity to voice their opinions on what worked well and what didn’t work.

· Learn from missteps. As your team vents, be sure to work with them to turn their complaints into solutions. Let them know that you’re eager to share their concerns with leaders across your agency. Try to understand the root cause of their concern by asking questions, and propose some actions that you can consider as a group.

· Agree to the next steps. The employees I spoke with last week assessed their leaders based on their communications. Managers who kept their teams informed saw their stock rise. Those who did not are facing questions. You cannot solve all of those problems, but you can try to be more transparent in the future, even with constraints from above. Ask yourself what you can do to keep your employees better informed.

· Focus on the future. Now that there’s some certainty beyond a two- to three-week planning horizon, you have some measure of control. As a result, you can begin shifting your employees’ attention to what lies ahead. How will the 2011 budget affect your programs? Do you need to modify your goals in light of new funding levels? How might you reenergize your programs to exceed expectations even in the face of funding cuts? Tackling these strategic questions together as a team can create a great sense of solidarity in the face of adversity.

I would be interested in hearing your ideas about the best approach to repairing the damage from the shutdown preparation saga to help you and your employees move on. Do you have any lessons learned from the shutdown during the 1990s? How have you seen leaders bounce back effectively in similarly trying circumstances? Please share your stories and post your ideas below, or email me at

And check back on Wednesday, when I speak with Adm. Thad Allen, former Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. You can also receive a reminder by following us on Twitter @RPublicService.

Also by The Federal Coach:

Playing favorites with fed workers?

Natural ‘street cred’: Talking with the director of the National Park Service

Gary Locke on reforming a system: Talking leadership with the Secretary of Commerce

How do you manage someone who wanted your job?

Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, explores workplace issues and provides advice for federal managers through analysis, interviews and reader Q&As in his Federal Coach blog for On Leadership.


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