Leading change in uncertain times
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Leading change in uncertain times

November 23, 2020 | Updated on November 30, 2020

The saying “change is the only constant in life” is especially true for federal employees. As we approach the end of 2020, the federal workforce is managing a new fiscal year and a presidential transition. It is also conducting the day-to-day work needed to ensure agencies deliver on mission—all amid a global pandemic that affects employees personally and professionally.  

The current environment demands more effective change management and change leadership. Many agencies have adjusted their mission delivery strategies to meet public needs more effectively. Nearly all have also developed novel work methods, including using virtual platforms, and implementing staggered schedules and new safety measures. Leaders must navigate these changes to keep their agencies and employees on track.  

The Public Service Leadership Model’s “Leading Change” competency includes five key skills that help leaders manage this change effectively.  

Vision Setting:

People need to understand why some workplace changes are necessary and how they will affect the day-to-day responsibilities. Leaders should:

  • Have a clear understanding of “the why” behind change efforts.
  • Develop a detailed plan for communicating strategies to design and execute change.


Buy-in is critical for change to be successful and requires employees to perceive their leaders as trustworthy and reliable. To move others toward certain change strategies, leaders should:

  • Project confidence and calm when communicating.
  • Model behaviors they want others to emulate.

Innovation and Creativity:

Creating a culture that welcomes and encourages new ideas builds trust, helps employers lead change and enables employees to make meaningful contributions to the workplace. To foster innovation and creativity, leaders should:

  • Source ideas from employees across levels, teams and subject expertise, ideally in an open forum, to establish idea sharing as a welcome and open practice.
  • Involve those who will be most affected by change in generating, testing and implementing new ideas.

Embracing Risk and Uncertainty:

To build an environment of trust, leaders must enable others to take risks and make it safe to fail. To create this type of environment, leaders should:

  • Be open about their own ideas and areas for development.
  • Highlight the lessons one can learn from both success and failure.


Change in the federal government is constant, and adjusting to continuously evolving demands, even in a typical year, is essential. Leaders should:

  • Eliminate barriers that might impede efforts to make change.
  • Create workplace conditions that ensure change efforts are successful.

Having to manage through change is inevitable. By developing these skills, federal leaders can ensure they meet head-on the demands of a rapidly evolving federal environment.