Finding Stability and Opportunity through Uncertainty
Last week, my colleague Debbie Eshelman discussed the ability of individuals to embrace the chaos in Federal organizations to move their career forward. For many workers, as Debbie rightly noted, it feels like we are living in a more chaotic world than ever before. Dramatic changes in leadership and associated policies, operating norms, organizational structures, and the workforce are creating tremendous instabilities in organizations.
Fortunately for Federal personnel there can be benefits to the organizational instability created by uncertainties, anxiety, and rapid change. As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel famously said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean [is] it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
Perhaps your organization or team feels like it is in the middle of a crisis with an uncertain future and shifting leadership, and is caught in the mire of the Federal hiring freeze. If so, here are a few things you can do to help take advantage of the “crisis” and use a planned approach to organizational change to bring stability to your work environment:
1. Understand your networks and those of your colleagues.
In her article on “The Network Secrets of Great Change Agents,” Dr. Julie Battilana of Harvard Business School indicates that her research on hundreds of organizational changes clearly demonstrates the need for effective use of informal influence that comes from organizational networks to achieve successful change.
Understanding how individuals in your organization are connected through their informal networks, and not just in the formal hierarchy of the organization, enables you to predict how information about the change will travel throughout your organization and maintain control of the messaging about the importance and value of the change.
Additionally, identifying people in your organization who are closely connected to influential “fence-sitters” or those who are likely to be ambivalent about the change. Identifying individuals who are highly connected across the organization—who aren’t outright resisting the change but maybe are slow to adopt it—and influencing them to endorse the change effort can dramatically enhance the chances of success for your change initiative.
2. Find the meaning behind the change.
To paraphrase American author and humorist Mark Twain, the two most important days in your change effort are the day you start and the day the organization finds out why. While Twain’s famous quote was talking about ultimate purpose in life, the sentiment holds true for organizational change efforts. It essential to tie your proposed change initiative to a higher sense of purpose that is driven by the mission and values delivered by the organization.
Workers in the Federal government are often motivated by the opportunity to add value to public life. And while there are still many unanswered questions about the origins and impact of public service motivation, it is clear that tying an organizational change to positive impacts on mission achievement and citizen impact can provide a much needed uplift in the likelihood of adoption.
3. Create safe spaces for failure and the resulting learning.
One of the things that can significantly drive up anxiety in unstable organizations is the fear of failure. The high performers in your organization that you need to have onboard for successful change are often those who have a high need for achievement. This achievement drive can translate into a reluctance to try new things – things which they may not be very good at. But, being willing to try something new is at the core of successful organizational change.
As a leader, you must create the psychological safety you and your team need to “fail forward” by clearly communicating that failure (within the appropriate boundaries of organizational risk) in the quest for change and improvement is not only okay, but actually desirable.
Ralph Heath at Synergy Leadership Group puts it this way: “To do their work well, to be successful and to keep their companies competitive, leaders and workers on the front lines need to stick their necks out a mile every day.” This is perhaps never more true than when an organization is facing significant uncertainty and instability.
The only way to thrive during these times is to be willing to take a risk that improves performance in the organization, but that means being willing to fail and learn from that failure. As you embark on a change effort, it is essential that as a leader, you build an environment where those on the change journey don’t see failure as the end of the road, but simply as a waypoint on the path to success.
There’s no doubt that Federal organizations today are in a rapidly shifting environment that has the potential to create a great degree of instability. The uncertainty also offers a great opportunity for a carefully planned and well executed organizational change that can both improve performance and provide an anchor for the workforce that reduces anxiety and increases connection to their team, their leaders, and the mission of the agency.
By harnessing and leveraging the power of change, organizations can create windows for new opportunities and a newly defined commitment to revitalizing strategies and processes.
So, whether external factors like a new administration or internal factors like significant numbers of retiring employees are creating instability in your organization, perhaps a carefully planned change effort is how you can seize the opportunity to do things you’ve never done before.