Preparing to lead through a government shutdown
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Preparing to lead through a government shutdown

November 15, 2023

In the days and weeks that lead up to a government shutdown, federal employees face looming uncertainties about their pay and job status, as well as concerns about what will happen to customers who lose access to critical services. These stressors demoralize public servants, undermining the work they do for the American public and millions around the world. 

If you are a federal employee who supervises others, or you simply want to have a positive impact on your team, your response to these uncertainties requires you to adopt a proactive rather than a reactive approach.  

The Circle of Influence is an effective tool for doing just that. 

The framework consists of two circles—the circle of concern and the circle of influence—and is based on the idea that effective leadership means focusing on the things you can control or influence, not what you cannot.   

Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The larger circle represents the things you are concerned about but have no control over, such as the political decisions that lead to government shutdowns or budget constraints. In contrast, the smaller circle represents the things you can control or influence, such as the actions you take to support your employees or the operational plans you put in place. 

To lead effectively through a government shutdown, it is important to recognize what is within your circle of influence and to focus time and energy on those areas, as they will directly impact how your team manages the disruption to its normal work.   

Three leadership actions within your Circle of Influence 

The Public Service Leadership Model offers three actions you and your team can take to navigate a government shutdown, all of which fall within your circle of influence. 

1. Stay cool, calm and collected.

As a self-aware leader, it is important to remain calm and composed; if you are nervous or negative, your team will be too. Your team will look to you for guidance and stability, so it is important to demonstrate confidence in the ability of your team to navigate the shutdown and reassure people that their efforts are valued. It is crucial to remember that you too are affected by the shutdown. Pay attention to your well-being so you can lead others effectively.  

2. Remember the whole person.

Each team member will be impacted differently by the shutdown. Some may experience significant financial strain, while others may find it stressful to deal with a disrupted routine. It’s essential to foster psychological safety within your team, creating an environment where concerns can be voiced without fear of judgment. In response, demonstrate empathy and understanding while communicating clearly and frequently about short- and long-term plans.  

3. Plan ahead and create scenarios for all potential outcomes.

As a leader, one of your main challenges will be to sustain your team’s work in the face of the furloughs, pay cuts and operational disruptions that come with a shutdown. In response, help your team prioritize, define clear roles and responsibilities, and remain flexible in adjusting plans as the situation evolves. Here are some operational approaches to consider in your planning:  

  • Be familiar with your agency’s contingency plan. Ensure those individuals or teams working on critical operations have the necessary resources.  
  • Maintain open lines of communication with contractors and full-time employees, especially to offer guidance on furloughs and back pay.  
  • Engage in an after-action review with your team to identify how you collectively navigated the shutdown and what could be improved in the future.  

As Sally Jewell, former secretary of the Department of the Interior and current member of the Partnership’s Government Advisory Leadership Council, recently said, “One size does not fit all in a shutdown.”  

While there may be general guidelines and procedures in place, each department or agency will experience unique challenges that require specific solutions. Taking an empathetic and adaptable approach as a leader will help your team address these challenges and find innovative ways to continue serving the public. 

Watch the video below to hear from Sally Jewell on navigating a potential shutdown as a leader. 

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