How federal leaders can position their agencies to thrive post-election

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For federal agency and department leaders, these are tumultuous times.

We are a hard-hit seven months into the devastating COVID pandemic, with no guaranteed end in sight. A summer of widespread protests transitioned into a season of fire and hurricanes. Federal employees are under a continuing resolution, strictly limiting budgets and spending. Immediately before the election, the president signed an executive order that could strip civil service protections from many in the federal workforce. And now, post-election day, we can expect further changes from the outgoing administration, followed by a new government in January.

All of this leaves many in the federal space asking: What does the future hold? What does the election’s outcome mean for me? While this level of ambiguity can be daunting, and it can be tempting to put your head down and try to wait it out, we urge you to resist that temptation.

Survive or Thrive?

Drawing on the latest neuroscience, Kotter has developed a model for how humans react to external cues that can help federal leaders chart a successful course through today’s turbulence and the post-election environment. This model identifies a two-channel system of Survive and Thrive, triggered by threats and opportunities, which shapes how people respond in times of uncertainty.

The Survive channel is our threat-seeking radar. When we spot a perceived threat, it triggers our sympathetic nervous system, allowing us to focus all of our attention on threat elimination. Uncertainty provokes the same response. Once activated, our Survive channel creates feelings of fear, anxiety and stress. When perceived threats are chronic or unresolved, we may freeze, causing apathy or despair. Strategies like staying under the radar and hunkering down are anchored in the Survive channel and are natural responses to this overwhelming year.

The Thrive channel is activated by opportunities and associated with feelings of excitement, passion, joy and enthusiasm. These emotions activate the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing us to expand our perspective and imagine, create and collaborate in new ways. Counterintuitively, in times of complexity and volatility, the most successful leaders continue to pursue new opportunities. They start by finding ways to calm people’s Survive response, and then quickly pivot to activating Thrive by spotting and pursuing new ways to surge ahead.

For example, during the Great Depression, many businesses resorted to massive layoffs and decreased investment in innovation. IBM, however, broke the mold. John Watson, chairman and CEO of IBM, saw immense opportunity, even in that historically challenging time. Under Watson’s direction, IBM invested heavily in innovation, building one of the best R&D labs in the world, and in its employees, instituting group life insurance, survivor benefits and paid vacation. As a result, post-depression IBM was well-positioned to capitalize on new opportunities for government contracts—such as winning the bid to maintain 26 million employment records, sparked by the Social Security Act of 1935, because their investments in innovation better equipped them to meet those new market demands.

Likewise, emerging from the pandemic will be an evolution, not a return to old work habits. Numerous agencies have already announced plans to continue remote work, noting that they can now access talent without the limitations of geography, productivity has increased, and employee satisfaction is higher. Innovation in telehealth has increased accessibility for veterans, especially for those in rural areas. With technology at the center of many pandemic-driven opportunities, CIOs are accelerating modernization efforts. Appropriately refocusing urgency as the pandemic threat wanes will be paramount to helping opportunity emerge from the crisis.

How federal leaders can dial up Thrive

Can federal leaders shift themselves and their teams from Survive to Thrive? Yes! While Survive is naturally stronger than Thrive, and can easily get over-activated, it doesn’t have to remain that way. The trick is to dial down Survive when it’s not serving you and refocus the energy towards dialing up Thrive.

So, where should you start? First, there are proven strategies for calming the Survive channel. Take time to identify your own triggers and assess your current levels of Survive and Thrive activation. Building this awareness can help mitigate the strength of your Survive reflex and can reduce “noise” that might be exacerbating feelings of fear, anxiety and stress by giving yourself and those you lead permission to reflect on and stop non-value add activities. At the same time, be open and honest with your team about your own experience, as well as what is known, what is unknown and what is expected of them. Ambiguity and a lack of control are two of the most common Survive triggers, so federal leaders must find ways to reduce those feelings by fostering as much transparency and empathy as possible.

Second, begin to dial up Thrive by helping your people develop a rational and compelling vision for a dramatically better future. Look to leverage technology and the learnings from the pandemic to create user-driven, on demand access to more consistent and frictionless services. Imagine federal agencies that are more responsive, adaptive, resilient and customer-centric. Picture a government able to proactively identify malicious attacks on infrastructure, supply chains and communication networks and able to redeploy resources and systems to ensure world-class service as needed. Envision a government that works seamlessly to gain consensus and truly serve its citizens.

To dial up Thrive, leaders must articulate audacious goals for the future. To meet these goals, federal leaders must mobilize their people and help them to achieve tangible successes quickly. By giving employees a safe space to experiment, try new things and most importantly fail, federal leaders will be able to spur innovation, transformation and positive outcomes that are far more sustainable than when urgency stems from a burning platform. Then when Thrive opportunities do result in success, make sure achievements are recognized, shared and celebrated. Amplify accomplishments, strive to build on them and look to engage more people in more ways. This is how grassroots efforts gain momentum and become a powerful force for lasting cultural change.

While each department or agency must define its own big opportunity for engaged Thrive-activating transformation, today’s situation presents several levers federal leaders can pull. The first is the sense of urgency that people are currently feeling, which can be productively redirected and redeployed. Second is the whole suite of management and behavioral changes that flow from COVID-19: a more flexible workforce in terms of time and geography, faster and more efficient decision making, improved productivity, and greater facility with electronic tools and communications. The third is the fundamental shifting of norms and questioning of the status quo.

You’re not in the top job? It doesn’t matter! Times like this demand leadership at every level. The walls may feel like they are crumbling down, but the good news is that new paths for success are opening up. If federal leaders can commit to accelerating Thrive today, we will look back on this time as the moment when seeds were sown for extraordinary transformations, breathtaking successes, and inspirational tales of vision and grit.

You can do it. Dare to be those leaders. Start now.

Martha Kesler, MSOD, is a principal at Kotter, who directs Kotter’s federal portfolio. 

Dr. Catherine Paul-Chowdhury is an affiliate at Kotter.

Dr. Vanessa Akhtar is a director at Kotter.

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