The past few weeks (years?) have been heavy.
In recent conversations with managers and teams, we’ve consistently heard people say, “I’m angry. I’m upset. But most of all, I feel helpless.” Trying to figure out a path forward, let alone focus on pulling together a client presentation, in the face of a continuous stream of devastating news can feel impossible. As Twitter senior engineering manager Ronnie Chen tweeted, one of her reports admitted in a 1:1, “I’m trying to compartmentalize but I’ve run out of compartments.”
Here are five approaches that might help you and your team feel better when everything seems terrible.
Don’t pretend it’s business-as-usual.
The world might feel out of your control, but how you choose to respond to it as a manager is not. Often when we don’t know what to do or say, we default to silence. But if you say nothing, your team will assume you either don’t know or don’t care about world events — which will erode trust.
Depending on the size and global scale of your team, you can either address what has happened in a meeting or in a group email. Communicate like a human and from the heart. For example, in response to a mass shooting, you might say, “When reading the news this morning, I felt deep sadness, fear, and frustration. I know this news is heartbreaking and difficult for all of us to process, and is particularly painful for our colleagues near the shooting. Here is how I/the organization can support you.”
This last piece is particularly important: provide a path forward. That might mean creating an opt-in space for people to process their emotions (see the next point), offering employees paid time off if they need it, or sharing other resources or company policies that might be helpful during a time of crisis.
Make it safe to talk about identity-based issues before crises happen.
Research by Dr. Angelica Leigh, an assistant professor of management at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business who studies diversity and emotions in the workplace, shows that widely publicized news of marginalized groups suffering violence (what she calls “mega-threats”) have a greater negative effect on minorities of color in the workplace. When an event is targeted at a minority group (for example, the May 2022 Buffalo shooting), members of that group may feel what Dr. Leigh calls an “embodied threat,” or a fear that there is a greater chance they will personally encounter identity-based harm. In her words, this fear can consume “psychological resources leading to heightened avoidant work behaviors, or higher work withdrawal and lower social engagement.”
In other words, when you’re more worried than ever about your own safety, your family’s safety, or your community’s safety, it’s hard to push that out of your mind and focus on work.
Trust cannot be earned overnight or with a single email. In the wake of a mega-threat, you can’t expect employees to feel safe opening up (especially about how they feel as a targeted minority) if you’ve never previously made an effort to ensure they feel comfortable having identity-based discussions. Leigh recommends managers make these kinds of conversations a regular occurrence, and her research shows that identity-based discussions that are psychologically safe can help reduce the negative psychological effects of mega-threats on minority groups at work.
The goal is to create an environment “where you’re talking about those differences and they’re being highlighted in conversations before an event happens, so when something happens, your employees can say, ‘Yes, when my manager asked me how I was doing, I told them I’m not doing well,’” Leigh explained in an interview with Charter. She says that when an employee is sharing what they did over the weekend, they should feel comfortable mentioning the fact that they went to a church function at their predominantly Black Baptist church in their community. “If I don’t feel comfortable telling you about these things that I do in my off time, or things that are connected to my identity, then how am I going to feel comfortable telling you when things are bad?” she asks.
Create space for different reactions.
Acknowledge what’s going on, but don’t ask everyone to say something about it in a team meeting. People will have a range of responses to an upsetting event. Some may want to dive into work as a distraction, and some might be too distracted to do good work. One employee might find comfort in talking about what they’re feeling, while another might be too overwhelmed, upset, or exhausted to say anything.
Instead, provide an optional time and space for those who would like to get together and…