An Open Letter to Federal Managers – Leading through “Sequestration”

I have the privilege of serving great clients, many of whom are managers in the federal government, like you. They are good people—leaders who are dedicated to their people and their mission—and they are under a great deal of strain right now. The budget cuts taking place through Congress’ “sequestration” touch far more lives than most people realize…federal employees facing furloughs, managers struggling to find clear (and reasonable) guidance, contractors trying to keep their businesses solvent and maintain responsiveness to their clients, and all of them wondering why the important mission they give the best of themselves to every day suddenly is not important enough for lawmakers to get their act together.

Having had the benefit of communicating with several federal managers last week, I am writing today to share my thoughts about leading employees through this current challenge. I hope that they offer you some new ways of thinking about the situation and a few helpful ideas that you can implement with your team.

In a recent New York Times article, Times writer Adam Bryant interviewed David Rock, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, about the SCARF model of employee motivation. He describes five things that drive our behavior—Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. Like all motivation models, with SCARF, we end up with a fairly simplistic view that does not completely capture the complex thoughts that that affect motivation. However, it does offer a way to think through the things that are impacting employee engagement right now, and I’ve got some ideas for how you can work with it. I’ll break it down for you here.

Status: This factor refers to where we sit in the organization. People who are higher up have more status, and, by their mere presence above others in the org chart, they often are seen as a threat.

How this is playing out: Now, “status” is not just in how high you sit, but whether or not you are subject to furlough. This gives “status” to peers and subordinates that were never considered a threat before.

What you can do: One way to help employees manage this unusual status gap is to ensure that you are listening closely to their ideas and demonstrating a willingness to either support their decisions or incorporate their ideas into your decision. Find out what contributes to their sense of worth by asking them a question like, “What motivates you to show up and do your best work?” and then find creative ways to encourage that motivation.

Certainty: This factor is about our ability to predict what will happen next. Uncertainty is painful, especially for employees in a large organization where some semblance of certainty is expected.

How this is playing out: This is probably the most acutely painful of the five factors—very few people thought sequestration would happen, so now everything is up in the air. If that can happen, what’s next? Unintended consequences are being uncovered every day.

What you can do: Though your team is very focused on the here-and-now and what might play out over the next few months, it will be helpful for you to keep your eye on the horizon. Execute the mission today, sure, and also keep making the decisions and mobilizing available resources that will enable your team to execute the mission over the next 5-10 years. Lack of certainty can be painful for you, too—just remember that your mood is far more contagious as a leader than as an individual contributor. Connect more frequently with colleagues who help you maintain perspective rather than those who drag you into drama.

Autonomy: This factor is all about control—who’s making decisions.

How this is playing out: As specific guidance comes out about how to cut expenses and how to invest resources, every leader’s autonomy decreases. Under threat of who-knows-what-next, people are in a conservative mood, pulling back decisions and resources they used to delegate to others.

What you can do: Notice what decisions you are tending to pull back into your domain and choose carefully. Remember, the more autonomy you can give others, the more their motivation increases. While this may cause some discomfort for you, it may offer a lot more comfort for your team members. And get some of your autonomy back by considering whether the saying, “It’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask for permission” is applicable to a decision you’d like to make.

Relatedness: This is the “us vs. them” factor. If you’re one of “us,” then I’ll be much more likely to listen to you and process what you say in a positive manner.

How this is playing out: To a large degree, there’s a lot of shared pain in this “sequestration,” so all federal employees were in the “us” group from the start. Now, with certain groups becoming exempt from furlough, a “them” group is being formed along unusual lines. Peer groups that work side by side (literally one cubical over in some cases) are subject to different levels of pain, and Relatedness is going down in those cases.

What you can do: As Rock says, create shared goals—help people maintain awareness of the similarities that they have with these “other” groups. One way to bring “shared goals” front and center is to engage employees in “shared problem solving,” so get mixed groups together to work through bigger problems that connect them to each other and to the mission.

Fairness: This factor looks at “sameness” in a slightly different way than Relatedness does—it’s all about whether you are rewarded or punished to the same degree that I am.

How this is playing out: Similar to Relatedness, things started out feeling Fair—we were all feeling the pain—and now there is some lopsidedness to the pain. The challenge with this factor is that it has a strong moral implication to it (people feel wronged by a deeply unjust set of decisions), and to make it worse, there is very little influence that managers can have in those decisions.

What you can do: While you can’t change the unfair decisions, you can tip the balance toward “reward” by understanding what each employee values as a reward for good work on a personal level. When asked, “What reward do you like to receive for a job well done?” most people refer to compensation or status. But peel the onion back a little further, and you’ll find the deeper sources of satisfaction that may just counter the moral “wrong” that they’re feeling—you just have to keep asking.

So there it is, S-C-A-R-F for the Federal Manager working through the sequestration budget cuts. Please leave a comment…I’d love to hear which of these ideas was most helpful for you, and I’d also like to find out what you’re doing to improve your team members’ SCARF. It’s the “take a penny, leave a penny” of leadership—“take an idea, leave an idea.” You never know who might benefit from that idea tomorrow.

Thank you for your service, and best wishes to you and your team.



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