There’s a new President in the White House, and a new party in control of government. When that happens, more than 4,000 positions in federal agencies turn over. For federal employees, it’s an uncertain time with leadership vacancies at the top and likely changes in the strategy and direction of their agencies.
The waiting game also happens in the private and nonprofit sectors when senior leadership changes, the company is pursuing a merger or acquisition, there’s an impending restructuring, or the company faces significant challenges or opportunities in the competitive environment.
While employees at all levels wait for the new strategy, structure and direction to roll down from the top, it can be hard to get anything done. Managers are afraid to take actions that might be criticized by the new leaders. Big initiatives and new programs get put on hold because there’s no one to make decisions. Employees are worried about their jobs. This paralysis can degrade operations and service.
What can leaders at all levels of the organization do to keep the organization moving forward in the face of uncertainty? Here are five steps to take now:
1. Focus on the customer and the job at hand
Your organization or industry might be facing an enormous change that will upend your operations, but you still have customers, clients, or citizens to serve. You can’t just order employees to “keep their noses to the grindstone.” What you can do is help employees refocus on their day-to-day work in a way that ensures your team still provides great service. That’s something you and your team have control over, and having control over something – when everything else is changing – helps both morale and productivity.
2. Understand and share the context for change
Most change starts outside an organization, but often employees aren’t aware of big picture and don’t see the challenges and opportunities in the same way as your senior leaders. Look for news stories, studies, and industry experts that can help you understand the trends in your industry and sector. For local, state and federal public employees facing a change at the top, the incoming administration’s proposed budget is a concrete expression of their policy views. While you might not be aware of all of the factors that will influence the new strategy, you can gather enough information to provide a much richer picture for employees.
3. You can probably figure out the new strategy
Given the context for change, the universe of potential strategic changes is small. In the private sector it’s usually a combination of growing revenue and cutting costs. In the public sector, depending on the philosophy of the incoming leaders, government is going to do more than it did before, or less. Focus on these potential strategies with your team, and think about ways that you and your employees could support them. You’ll be a step ahead when your leadership shares the new direction.
4. Take on short term projects and celebrate success
A great antidote to paralysis is action. Think of some internal projects your team can work on that would advance the organization in the short term while building teamwork and employee engagement. Some ideas might be impractical until you have more direction, but it’s likely you can find some good projects that can be completed while you wait. Find a role for each employee, and when you complete a project, celebrate it with your team. Taking on, and finishing, these small projects gives employees a sense of accomplishment and forward movement.
5. Make sure high-performing employees stay engaged
Your best employees may start looking around for new opportunities while you wait for direction. If you don’t communicate with your employees until you have all the answers, your good employees may drift away leaving you with a less effective workforce to implement the new strategy. Get your high-performing employees involved in leading team projects and let them know that despite the uncertainty you value their work and need them to stay.
You can’t control the external context for change, or your leaders’ timeline for revealing the organization’s new direction. You can control how you lead your team through uncertain times. When everything is changing, your leadership can make a big difference in your organization’s success through the changes ahead.