James Campbell Quick is a professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the University of Texas at Arlington. He specializes in addressing workplace disruptions, downsizing and furloughs. Quick discussed the recent government shutdown and its psychological impact on employees with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
Q. What are some of the psychological effects federal employees may be experiencing from the shutdown?
A. The first outcome of this is the experience of uncertainty, and uncertainty in the work environment can trigger anxiety and fear and then anger and sadness. Next is the threat of loss, which can be in terms of income, position, relationships or identity. What we get out of our working environments are not just financial benefits, but a range of psychological and social benefits. Whether employees acknowledge that or not is another question, this is all somewhat subliminal.
Q. What can federal managers and leaders do to address these effects?
A. There are three things that they can do. First, they should acknowledge the negative feelings, both in themselves and the people they work with. Second, they should talk to their people, empathize and be compassionate. However, it’s important to make the distinction that really caring doesn’t mean you take on the problem yourself. Bobby Kennedy was a very empathetic and compassionate listener. After listening to a person’s problem, he would ask: “Okay, what are you going to do about it?”
Third, leaders should recognize that some of their people may be at risk because of the uncertainty and fear and need additional help. They should get them the help they need because leaders and managers are not psychologists.
Q. The uncertainty isn’t likely to go away, given another potential shutdown is looming in January. How can federal employees deal with that issue?
A. First, I would keep a diary. Write out your situation and feelings. Second, talk to your friends. Staying in touch with friends is some of the best stress management advice that we give people. Knowing who your friends are and talking honestly and openly is a valuable thing to do. Thirdly, plan and prepare. We know that uncertainty is there, so be prepared for it the best you can. That means anticipating financial and potential risks, and planning on how to deal with those.
Q. Is there anything managers can do to reenergize their teams?
A. Once you have a traumatic event such as this, life doesn’t go back to the way that it was before. For people to reenergize, they must first acknowledge the negative feelings and recognize that it’s never going to be quite the same again. But that doesn’t mean that life can’t go on in a healthy way.
Your employees are important. Our federal workforce is an integral and important part of our social and national fabric. Tell the people working for you how important they are and remind them that there is a mission to be fulfilled. The work they’re doing in a whole variety of ways contributes to the society and culture.
Q. Is there any other advice you would like to share?
A. Know what you can control and what you can’t control. Healthy people exercise influence over their thoughts and feelings. I had a kid in an undergraduate class who told us he got up in the morning and talked to himself in the mirror. If he didn’t like what he had to say he went back to bed for a little while to reset. So, if you don’t like what you’re thinking about or saying, you can exercise influence with that.
This game of Russian roulette, of closing government, will take a toll on the federal workforce. The marker may not come due for 12, 24 or 36 months. There is a lag effect between traumatic events and when bad things happen on the other side.