03/15/2012 10:22 am ET Updated May 15, 2012

Convincing a Cynical Workforce That Change Is Necessary

After years of being told to "do more with less" using the latest management fads - think Total Quality Management or Reinventing Government -- how do you convince a cynical workforce that change is really necessary? -- Federal Supervisor, U.S. Department of Education

To some public servants, the call to do even more with even less may sound all too familiar. It's especially difficult if your employees see it as a call to work even harder to achieve the same results with fewer resources. The problem may be that they are working as hard as they can, and if so, we need to change what we ask of them.

Those who heard this same theme in the 1990s or in previous eras may be saying to themselves and their leaders, "We can wait this out. This will pass."

Leaders and employees paying close attention to the debate about government performance, however, will note that this time the conversation and environment are significantly different than in previous cycles.

The political discourse today is reexamining the role and size of government. Fueling that conversation is a still fragile U.S. economy and a very real budget crisis. Some fundamental aspects of what government does and how it operates may be on the verge of change. Helping your employees deal with the new reality won't be easy, but here are a few ideas you may want to consider:

· Help your team see the world. Leaders too often assume that their team sees the world the same way they do. That's not always true. Leaders focused on the bigger landscape -- budget cuts, human capital policies and other agency-wide trends -- can see a vastly different version of reality than their employees who are focused on the day-to-day tasks associated with getting the job done. So regularly update your employees on the issues and challenges confronting your agency, such as significant budget reductions and increased workloads. The message often needs to be that, even if we want things to stay the same, they are going to change.

· Change the request. Don't simply ask your employees to do "more with less," but rather ask them to help you and the organization figure out how best to get the mission accomplished within the current budget and workload realities. It may be that your agency can only do "less with less," which means that priorities have to be set and that some work will no longer be done or less of it will be done. Sometimes, however, employees can help find better, more efficient ways to the get the basic mission accomplished -- doing something different with less.

· You've been dealt a bad hand. What are you going to do about it? Reframing problems as opportunities will set you and your team on a positive path forward. The team may understandably be unhappy about program changes or budget cuts, but remind them that mission statements and position descriptions say nothing about funding. Employees have a mission to fulfill as a team and as individuals. Recognizing what you cannot change will allow your team to focus on what it can control.

· All for one and one for all. Once your team sees reality and the opportunity for change, you'll want to engage them in the process of problem-solving. Not everyone will be interested in the conversation, and that's okay. However, you'll need to capture the hearts and minds of those who are enthusiastic by creating a SWAT team, hosting team-wide brainstorms or presenting your challenges on internal, online idea Web sites. Provide your employees with an outlet for any nervous energy or exceptional ideas they may have to share.

· Do something. Your team will know that you're serious about change if you do something different. Consider sending out a weekly email with agency-wide updates, scheduling a weekly team meeting if you don't already have one or, better yet, implementing at least one new idea offered by a member of your team. This is one circumstance where you need to lead by example. Do something. Do anything. And your team will be more likely to get the message and be ready to change.

I know that leaders across our federal government are dealing with similar issues. I've heard this same question three times in three different agencies this week. What are you doing to help your team change? Please share your ideas by leaving a comment or emailing me at

This post was originally featured on The Washington Post's website.