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The Public Manager Magazine Article

Feeling Your Way Through Times of Transition

Follow these practical tips to keep employees engaged when changes are happening all around them.


Mon Oct 10 2016

Feeling Your Way Through Times of Transition-2b705215d737a44e6c0e3c7034119d6284bc4f8c8d016f14cca77c02769a95ca

During the upcoming presidential transition, nearly 4,000 political appointees will depart, according to the Center for Presidential Transition. This will leave career civil servants to ensure the government continues to function effectively until new appointees are confirmed.

It's an extreme example of significant organizational change which, even when expected, can negatively impact employee engagement just at the time when it's most needed. Not knowing who will be in charge guarantees a certain level of anxiety, and it can be a time that leaves people feeling vulnerable, despite herculean efforts to plan and execute a smooth transition.


Change at the top levels inevitably affects key drivers of employees' engagement, which, according to Dale Carnegie's latest research, include a supportive workplace environment, sharing the organization's values, opportunities for learning and development, and having a strong relationship with the immediate supervisor. Other critical drivers can become harder to control during organizational change, including maintaining confidence in senior leaders and sustaining open communication, because you can't communicate what you don't yet know.

Where does that leave managers who are trying to continue to bring out the best in their teams? One area to consider is paying close attention to the emotions your employees are feeling and doing as much as possible to create positive ones.

What Employees Need

Research from Aon Hewett has found that in times of organizational change, employees' need to feel connected increases. A recent study by Dale Carnegie Training goes further, suggesting that emotions created by supervisors and the workplace are crucial to employee engagement. The emotions associated with immediate supervisors that are most strongly correlated with high employee engagement are feeling confident, assured, connected, and valued.

Why consider emotions? Research by James B. Avey, Tara S. Wernsing, and Fred Luthans shows there are concrete benefits in making sure your interactions with employees foster positive feelings:

  • Employees' positive emotions can help counter potential dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors during organizational change.

  • Positive emotions are associated with emotional engagement and organizational citizenship that has been shown to facilitate and enhance positive organizational change.

The good news is that giving consideration to the emotions they evoke is something that every supervisor can do, and there are practical ways to do it. So, how can you help your employees feel more assured, valued, confident, and connected?



Solid strategies, plans, tactics, and timelines help reassure employees that their leaders have things under control, but don't forget the more subtle aspects of reassurance:

  • Show respect for others' opinions. As new priorities are rolled out, not everyone may agree. Whether the changes are up for discussion or not, it helps employees to be heard and respected.

  • Communication is critical, but it's not simply what you say. It can be just as important to be a good listener, which reassures people of your genuine interest in them.


Times of transition inevitably bring heavier workloads and fewer people to carry them. That's why it's essential to take these steps:

  • Give members of your team honest appreciation for the value they bring to your team.

  • Make others feel important to the success of the agency's work, and do it sincerely.


Leadership transitions bring anxieties, but a good supervisor can help counterbalance those fears by keeping these ideas in mind:

  • New leadership can be an opportunity for a fresh start. A manager who expresses confidence in an employee's abilities can inspire them to give their best.

  • Appeal to higher motives by stressing the importance of the agency's mission. Although tactics may change, employees should have no doubt about the continued significance of the work they do.


People are more secure and less fearful when they feel like an important part of their organization and its mission:

  • Being open to employees' ideas and desires allows them to feel like part of the decision process and take more of a stake in the outcomes.

  • Employees are more engaged when they can connect personally with the mission of the organization. Position goals and decisions in terms of employees' personal interests.

Over 100 years ago, Dale Carnegie observed, "When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion." It's worth remembering today. So as the coming months unfold, keep in mind that keeping our hard-working federal employees engaged and willing to give their best depends a great deal on making them feel assured, valued, confident, and connected.


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