by | Aug 21, 2017 | Blog

The United States is experiencing a shaking — a deep dislodging of what seemed secure. This has resulted in a mental health crisis in corporate America. Rather than working, workers are anxious, depressed, and overwhelmed. They wonder: What’s going on? Who can I trust? What’s real and what’s fake? And the most troubling question: What’s next?

With each new tweet, executive order, and hostile press conference, normal is redefined. No matter your political affiliation it is safe to assume that most people were disturbed by the tragedy in Charlottesville, VA. I predict that this single event will ultimately be identified as the tipping point that moved U.S. employees from day-to-day stress into recognizable states of trauma.

I use that word consciously. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as the emotional response someone has to an extremely negative event. While trauma is a normal reaction to a horrible event, the effects can be so severe that they interfere with an individual’s ability to live a normal life. Neurophysiological, psychological, and cognitive functions are impaired. Irritability, anger, and oppositional behavior are normal reactions to a traumatic event. People often withdraw from social interactions or avoid places and situations that remind them of their pain.

These internal struggles soon become evident in the workplace. This explains why there is less laughter at the coffee bar. People are hesitant and uncomfortable. The rate of sick call-outs skyrockets. Executives begin to whisper about their vague sense of foreboding about scheduling a full company meeting.

This week, I pushed the envelope in a workshop; I dared to mention race with a group I had been working with for 10 months.

“I finally feel freed up to talk about race,” I said.

The response to my statement was what I can only describe as frozen. No one attempted eye contact with the coworker to their left, or the supervisor in the row behind them. All eyes were on me. And the eyes were not those of intrigued attendees impressed with my topic. They were blank stares. My years of interpreting body language and facial expressions led me to one conclusion. This was panic. I was there to guide the group, of mostly white individuals, in their pursuit of increased cultural competency.

I imagine their thought process was somewhere along the lines of, is this African American woman going to make us talk about “it”?

I also imagine that I’m not the only person this week who tried to discuss the big, hefty, shadowy topic of race and was met with blank stares and uncomfortable silence.

And I’ll admit, talking about race is not easy. We don’t have very good language or mental models for how to imagine and manage these conversations.

But, if we don’t begin to own our story as Americans, it will continue to own us.

Smart leaders will want to prepare themselves to manage a workforce triggered by our increasingly unpredictable political climate and world. And while you can’t control what is unpredictable, you can create a predictable culture of connection that will help people survive and be productive in these difficult times.

Here are eight tips on how to lead in times of crisis.

1. Find a safe place to work out your own feelings. It’s not easy, but do your best to share your feelings in places where you feel you can be completely honest and open. You need to clear up your emotional overload in order to think clearly and be an effective communicator and listener to others. Self-care is a necessary skill for today’s leaders.

2. Don’t assume you know what people are thinking. Don’t assume you know how people feel or think about current political events based on their physical characteristics. It’s better to be a curious listener then assume you know what they are thinking or feeling.

3. Recognize that people are afraid to share their real feelings. Many people don’t know how to say what they are really thinking for fear they will sound too emotional or not emotional enough based on who they are talking to. Even more significant, traumatized people are often unaware or unable to articulate their feelings. Give people room to fumble through their emotional expression. That may mean having more one-on-one conversations before gathering people in a group

4. Create informal moments where you engage people. Many people may have a slow warmup to disclosing their true feelings. It may take 10 to even 15 minutes of ‘non -talk’ before people are ready to give you ‘real talk.’ Encourage small talk.

5. You don’t have to agree to listen. Your ability to listen in a compassionate manner sets the stage for deeper sharing and trust to be built. Whether you hold the same political views or not, you can let them know you respect them as people.

6. Make it clear that violence will not be tolerated. People have different levels of tolerance for what feels like conflict. Healthy discussions should be encouraged while setting the clear behavioral standard that intimidation through verbal or physical actions is not acceptable, whether in person, by phone, or through electronic communication. It also helps to establish ground rules for what is and what is not acceptable during difficult conversations.

7. Be aware that things going on now can trigger past traumas. Our brains are webs of associations. A picture, a smell, a touch, a song can easily connect back to uncomfortable and perhaps painful previous events. Expect overreactions to situations that may seem mild or even non-issues to you.

8. Model and Encourage Self Care. Sleeping, eating healthfully, exercise, engaging in pleasurable activities, talking to a supportive person, spiritual activities, getting fresh air, and giving and receiving hugs from friends and loved ones are the most effective antidotes to moving through emotional turmoil. More work, longer hours, and heavier deadlines will not result in higher quality work in these troubled times. In fact, just the opposite is likely to ensue.