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Federal Coach: What are battered feds to do? Don't worry, be happy

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

There's been a steady drumbeat of bad news for federal employees for more than a year, and the stories are likely to get worse before they get better as the drama over the budget deficit and the weak economy continue to unfold.

What are federal leaders supposed to do to maintain employee engagement and productivity in the face of all of the adversity? It turns out that one-hit wonder Bobby McFerrin had the right advice years ago: "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

I admit to making this a little too simple. Let me explain.

Last week, a friend shared an article by Shawn Achor on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network titled What Giving Gets You at the Office. Achor's research examines what he calls "social support" - working with people who genuinely care for one another - and its effect on employee engagement and productivity.

The research makes sense intuitively, but he makes a more counterintuitive point that I wanted to share:

"In an era of do-more-with-less, we need to stop lamenting how little social support we feel from managers, coworkers and friends, and start focusing our brain's resources upon how we can increase the amount of social support we provide to the people in our lives. The greatest predictor of success and happiness at work is social support. And the greatest way to increase social support is to provide it to others."

While Achor doesn't specifically look at the public sector, he sounds like he's speaking directly to federal employees. As a result, I thought it would be worth examining strategies for providing social support to help your employees.

Stay positive - There's an old saying: "When faced with adversity, you can choose to laugh or cry." Leaders obviously set the tone, and whether you choose to stay focused on solving problems or sulk about the circumstances will have an impact on your employees. I'm not advocating that you stroll along whistling past the graveyard, but you should give your team a sense of hope that together you will find a way forward amid the tough times.

Build relationships - At one point or another,we're all guilty of using, "How are you?" as another form of "hello" when passing colleagues in the hallway. We rarely expect more than "I'm fine" as a response, and we almost never stop for conversation. When you have a chance for a one-on-one conversation, be sure to check in to assess how they're really doing regarding workload, stress on the job, worries about the future or other appropriate topics.

Establish a fun team - Bad news doesn't have to dominate the workplace. Enlist the help of your most outgoing colleagues and ask them to organize a few low-cost to no-cost social events like a bagel breakfast, a potluck cook-off competition at lunch or an ice cream social. The ideas may sound a little hokey, but it will give your team a chance to lighten up given all of the heavy news.

Fight for your team - You can never forget about achieving your agency's goals. You'll undoubtedly need to make sacrifices, but make sure the cuts are strategic and that you're thinking of your team - collectively and individually. If budget reductions will adversely affect your team's performance, you have a responsibility to speak up. If some cuts are inevitable, be sure to help members of your team land on their feet in another position, at another agency or another sector.

So it may not be enough to simply "Put on a Happy Face," to quote yet another old song, but you need to invest some additional time in supporting your employees through this tough period.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Aug 12, 2011 at 12:12 PM


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