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.
What are some of the psychological effects federal employees may be experiencing from the shutdown?
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.
What can federal managers and leaders do to address these effects?
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.