Leading in Uncertain Times

The disruption that has unfolded over the past several months is enough to challenge even the most seasoned leader. As the entire landscape of the workplace shifts around them, agencies are forced to make critical decisions amid tremendous budget shortfalls. According to, “almost 60 percent of municipalities above 500,000 population will furlough employees, and nearly half will have to lay them off”.(1) As organizations navigate through deep cuts, it is imperative that leadership shifts their focus to the remaining staff and programs. Reductions in force impact everyone, and surviving employees can go through a myriad of mixed emotions. One lingering question for leadership and team members alike is: ‘how do we get past this?’ In order to move the organization forward leadership must consider the very real and personal impact this forced change will have on your employees, how the programmatic cuts effect the team beyond an operational level, and how to lead your team through this time of crisis. Providing consistent support and leadership for your team has never been more important.

Before we delve in, I would like to frame what you are about to read with a refresher on Kurt Lewin’s 3-step change model. First published in 1947, Lewin’s framework for change management is still widely used by organizations today due to its simple yet effective approach to instituting lasting change. Recognizing a need for simplicity and structure during times of change Lewin breaks his model down into three essential stages:

1. Unfreeze
2. Change (or Transition)
3. Refreeze

As leaders, placing ourselves in the mindset of change managers during this time allows for a much more manageable and controlled approach during a time of forced change or crisis. The change we are all going through is not by choice, but that doesn’t mean we can’t control, and manage, certain aspects of it. Here we will touch upon a few of the factors we as leaders must consider and reassess to ensure our team is supported during this time of crisis induced change.

Workload (Unfreeze)

The change we are all experiencing is not by choice, but rather by external factors beyond our control. Our perfectly formed ice castle is melting before our eyes, and we must be prepared to handle the resulting meltwater. When team members depart, the work they perform rarely follows suit. It is much more likely other team members are now saddled with additional workload, heightened expectations (real or perceived), and all of the stress that goes along with it. If not addressed this cycle will often lead to longer work hours, incomplete assignments, burnout, and ultimately, turnover. .

The crisis has forced the need for change, as the previous way of conducting business is no longer feasible. It is critical then, that leaders:

  • Assess the current state of, well…everything. Focus on modelling where you were on an individual, team, and organizational level at the onset of this crisis; then start assessing the reality of where you are at each level right now. The status quo is no longer an option, but that doesn’t mean a drastic increase in workload is inevitable. This leads directly into my next point…

  • Garner support and buy-in: engage, assist, and guide staff through this prioritization process. Serve as a partner and you will help build trust, show empathy, facilitate buy-in, and elicit ownership of the resulting plan. This also becomes a key step for leaders to help their team manage workload and the stress that comes along with it.

  • Strategize with the remaining team about reallocation and/or reassignment of work products. Managers should engage employees as a partner in this task: take time to clearly understand what their employees are working on, determine the items that remain critical, prioritize those items in order of precedent, and eliminate any low-priority or no-longer-relevant items from their employee’s workplan. When engaging in this process take all factors into account; it is possible that some formerly high priority department projects and objectives should be reconsidered, and timelines will likely need to be adjusted. Taking ownership of these decisions removes the burden from staff, allows them to focus on the most important work tasks, and as a result work more effectively and efficiently.

  • Simplicity: During these times simplicity is key; don’t expect complex tasks to gain much buy-in.

When shifting assignments, it is also important to consider the essential functions of each classification, and to stop to ask yourself if the changes being made will create a classification/ higher class pay issue in the future. If they cannot be avoided, consult with Human Resources to document the changes being made, whether or not they are temporary, and what solutions are available. These steps can save a lot of time, money, and raise morale in the long run.

Expectations (Change/Transition)

The physical change currently unfolding in most agencies is apparent: there are less people and less resources available to meet the same, if not elevated, service goals. It is imperative for these physical changes to be acknowledged by leadership and accompanied by a change in leadership’s mindset. You can’t expect everything that was getting done previously will continue to look the same with less people and budget however, that doesn’t mean all deadlines get thrown out the window. Managers must lead the conversation and set new, realistic (this is key), performance goals based on everything discussed during the “unfreeze” stage. Performance goals are an extremely important element of change, and setting your employees up to successfully meet those goals will facilitate job satisfaction, which is critical right now. Be clear with your team in communication of the revised expectations and listen to their concerns. Providing clear direction eliminates uncertainly, and provides a structure that they can succeed in. Additionally, use this time to set expectations for self-care and show your teammates that their wellbeing is paramount to the overall success of the team. Stress the need for rest, relaxation, and sleep for your team and yourself. Proactively setting expectations for your team’s wellbeing will remove a huge stressor in a time where the lines of work-life are becoming increasingly blurred.

Communication (Change/Transition)

Employees are stressed out for obvious reasons. Are you creating an environment that fosters productive communication? Is the environment safe? Will your employees tell you when they need support or guidance? You as a leader must be proactive and create this space. Listening to your employees is always important, but in times of uncertainty, change, and crisis it is especially important that a great leader knows how to be a rock for their team. Communication is extremely important for all phases of change, however in a time of crisis you may not be in control of the communication during the initial unfreezing stage. This makes it even more important for leadership to emphasize communication during the time of change. Some things to think about when crafting your own communication strategy for your team:

Keep a constant pulse on your team and the greater working environment. This means knowing the environment both internal and external to your team.

1. What are the stressors external to your team?

  • Other work groups that you collaborate with? Other departments? Client departments?
  • Community expectations?
  • Personal stressors?

2. What are the stressors internal to your team?

  • Deadlines
  • Performance expectations? Be mindful of self-imposed performance expectations that may be the source of anxiety. Reinforce realistic performance goals
Develop trust:
  • Position yourself as a trustworthy ear because sometimes your team may just need to vent, and venting can mean the difference between productivity and a meltdown.
  • Be cognizant and acknowledge the natural anxiety caused by layoffs, pay-cuts, budget cuts, bumping etc... This can be magnified for those who experienced this during the 08’ recession.
  • Lead from where you are, and lead by example
  • Show you’re a person too: you aren’t perfect, you don’t have all the answers, you are a part of the team just like everyone else
  • Transparency is important: people tend to be a lot less scared when they know what is going on and why its happening
A great leader listens, and I mean really listens: be aware, and take note, of non-verbal cues to show that you are really listening to what your team members are saying
  • Try not to look like you are checking your email or phone during your video call,
  • Turn on your video even if your team member prefers not to (make sure they know you have no expectation for them to turn on their video if they would rather not).
Communication involves active listening: keep your leader hat on and really distill the information you take in.

Assess the situation, and if necessary, act on the information you are provided.

Remember to periodically reassess the situation and adjust accordingly.

Training and Procedures (Refreeze)

During times of uncertainty and change we as leaders tend to excel at focusing on the task at hand: we work with our resources, create a plan, rally our team around this plan, and say ready…set…go!! What we often discount is the importance of providing a roadmap to success, so our team feels confident in implementing the new vision. If we want to implement change that will stick than we must achieve buy-in from as many stakeholders as possible. You might be thinking ‘I communicated really well and I have buy in, so I’m good to go.’ That up front buy-in is great, and necessary, but let’s take the next step and foster long term, lasting, large scale buy-in. We want to embed the change, in a positive way, into our team culture going forward. This is where training comes in. Here are a few points to consider when implementing change:

  1. Roll out team-wide uniform/standardized training. This way everyone on the team is on the same level, knows what to expect, and gains an idea of how others may react. This training should initially be centered around adjusting to the change at hand. This will help your team feel supported by leadership.

  2. Develop standard operating procedures (SOPs)...these make people feel safe. It’s a sort of checklist or routine that creates a safety zone (even if the SOP is simply: no matter what the team will have a standing 3pm open forum meeting on M,W,F). SOPs must be detailed and specific; notice the example doesn’t say the team will have a floating meeting, sometime in the afternoon, and will try for three days a week. These sorts of initiatives help to embed the change and provide a roadmap to sustainability.

  3. Explore and execute training centered around growth opportunities. While some doors may close due to this crisis, others may open because of it. In times of crisis, many civil servants are looking for ways to create a lasting impact. As a leader you should facilitate this as much as possible. Meet with your team, explore opportunities, and find ways to help your team grow professionally. Maybe its achieving the certification that there never seemed to be enough time to study for, or maybe it’s a new skill that has suddenly become necessary.

  4. Recognize and celebrate success, as every win, no matter how large or small, deserves recognition in a time of crisis.

Facilitating professional development through training is always important, but in a time of change, uncertainty, and crisis training can drive morale and create stability in an otherwise unstable environment.

As leadership at all levels is called upon to navigate continuously evolving levels of uncertainty and change, remember the basics. Unfreeze by addressing workload, guide your team through the change by setting expectations and communicating along the way, and help your team prepare for what’s next through training and establishing new procedures. The key is to not allow the change to manage you, but to utilize change management techniques to convert crisis into opportunity. In a crisis change is inevitable, and the risks of not managing these elements will manifest through stress, injury, low-morale, burnout, and turnover. By confronting a crisis as an opportunity to manage change, long term damage can be mitigated, and further opportunities will present themselves along the way. No matter what, keep the end goal in sight.


The disruption that has unfolded over the past several months is enough to challenge even the most seasoned leader. As the entire landscape of the workplace shifts around them, agencies are forced to make critical decisions amid tremendous budget shortfalls. Leaders must consider the very real and personal impact this forced change will have on your employees.
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Justin Chaudoin, MBA

Justin has a career in leadership and HR serving for the U.S. Army as an Executive Officer, Amazon, and the City of San Jose before joining CPS HR Consulting. He managed the departmental employment, training and development, employee relations, employee engagement, return to work, workers comp/leave of absence, and payroll/timekeeping units. He brings a formal education with his MBA from the University of Notre Dame and practical human resources experience to public sector clients.‍

Kelly Gonzales, M.A.

Kelly has dedicated her career to human resources. She has served as a human resources manager for the City of Upland as well as a Human Resources Office Manager in the public sector. Kelly brings with her a breadth and depth of human resources experience and the ability to understand client needs to find a solution that helps moves organizations forward.‍

About CPS HR Consulting

CPS HR Consulting is a self-supporting public agency providing a full range of integrated HR solutions to government and nonprofit clients across the country.  Our strategic approach to increasing the effectiveness of human resources results in improved organizational performance for our clients.  We have a deep expertise and unmatched perspective in guiding our clients in the areas of organizational strategy, recruitment and selection, classification and compensation, and training and development.