What do we say?

How to help your employee community cope at a difficult time

OUR COMMUNITY IS grieving the loss of four precious lives who were taken simply because of their faith.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their loved ones and all those affected by this horrific tragedy.

And as we, the greater business community in London, mourn alongside all residents of the city and stand in solidarity with the Muslim community, it is imperative for local business leaders to realize this state of anxiety doesn’t just go away at work, especially for Muslim and minority populations who may feel that they or their loved ones are particularly vulnerable.  

Given the ways in which stress has been shown to spillover between work and home (often the same place these days), it is likely that work and well-being are being impacted, both by the stress of coping with these events and the belief that stoicism is part of professionalism.

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Business leaders may not feel it is their place to engage with employees around events that don’t directly involve the business. But while senior managers are neither spiritual leaders nor mental health professionals, they are leaders of their workplace communities. As heads of these communities, business leaders are invariably in a position to affect employee well-being through how they craft cultures and values to guide employees through times both ordinary and extraordinary.

Kenneth Matos, a New York-based director of people science at Culture Amp, says many business leaders feel unprepared to deal with issues of such magnitude, especially given the complicated diversity and political aspects of community tragedies. However, he stresses that the price of authority is that eyes will turn to you and silence is a statement as easily misinterpreted as any honest expression of support. There’s little to gain in avoiding engagement with events such as as this and so much to achieve through your leadership.

While no one can provide a definitive approach to leading your employees through times of tragedy, Matos suggests keeping in mind the following top of mind as you communicate with your team.

Examine your feelings first: You can’t lead your community through emotional times if you aren’t in touch with what you are feeling and how that affects your presence and demeanor. Give yourself permission to feel frustration, sadness, hope or whatever else the situation evokes for you. Then look for how those feelings inspire you to make things better. That is the thought process you want to share with your team — not just the pain of the losses but how you are harnessing those feelings to reinforce your determination for change. Reviewing some resources for managing through a crisis can help you feel more ready to lead people through the healing process.

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Be the first to speak out: There are a variety of ways to create a shared experience for your people. A letter to your team or the company (if you are a senior leader) is a good start. It’s a formal way to let everyone know what you are thinking and is a good tool when the staff is too big to connect with everyone personally.

Keep the letters short, with a focus on caring about people in the organization as they cope with events and how the business can support them through the crisis. It should also note your confidence that others in the organization feel the same and will support each other through trying times, just as you are offering to do. In the end, it is less about what you say than the view of you sharing your experience, offering concrete support and inviting others to do the same.

Follow-up with action: If your staff is remote, you can hold a voluntary Zoom meeting to give people a chance to voice their feelings or concerns. Bringing people together who are also looking to make sense of tragedy is a powerful experience.

Invite people to share comments via email with you or a representative in HR. Those comments can be curated and shared appropriately to provide a subtle framework for the kind of interaction you are fostering.

Then give people the opportunity to share their reactions and ideas for how to support the community. The goal is to give people a chance to voice their feelings and desire to support the organizational community, not to digress into political diatribes. Consider having a professional facilitator or mental health professional orchestrate the meeting, especially if the events directly involve any of your people.

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Give employees something to do: The other goal of these conversations is to make employees feel a little more in control of their situation. Reminding them of the various supports your organization offers such as employee assistance programs, mental health benefits and coaches, can help them connect with professional help. Rally your employee resource groups to consider what they might do to support the community. You can also provide links to local volunteer and community action organizations to help direct their feelings towards constructive action and further solidify your organization’s place in the surrounding community.

Build on the connections: In time, the anxiety and fear that people feel after a tragedy fades and life returns to a new normal. Don’t let the community building you have done fade. Keep employees engaged with one another. Individuals will have their own tragedies and knowing that they can turn to the rest of the team will be a boon, even after the big events have passed.

Leadership is about more than just guiding employees to do their jobs well. It includes creating environments and cultures that sustain their commitment and connection to one another and the community they form as coworkers. How you respond to tragedies is one test of the strength of those communities. If you can authentically lead your people through such events, the people and the business they comprise will all thrive. What do we say? say Leadership

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