Leading Through Trauma, Distractions, and Uncertainty

Have you ever heard the old folk song “What’s You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” Well, it feels like we’re living through it. These are challenging and unprecedented times. It seems as if we’re living through a different historical event every week, and sometimes each week seems worse than the last. First, it was the global pandemic, then nationwide protests against police violence, then a divisive election season, and most recently an attack on our nation’s Capitol. It’s exhausting.

Events in the news and public discourse along with the personal issues your employees may be dealing with are complex and require a nuanced response. As a manager, it may be challenging to lead with so many distractions for yourself and your employees. While you should be sensitive to the distractions and challenges they are dealing with, you’ll also have deadlines to meet and targets to hit. It can be hard to strike the right balance, but the starting point should always be leading with compassion.

Examine your own feelings

If you find yourself anxious, distracted, or emotional, then there’s a chance that your direct reports do as well. Think about how you want to be treated in this scenario and what you need to help you cope at present. But don’t stop there. While some events are likely to affect workers equally, there are going to be societal events that affect some people more profoundly than others, so remember to be empathetic. Just because you can’t necessarily relate to such events doesn’t mean that your employees aren’t struggling.

Get to know your employees

The better you know your employees, the better you’ll be able to anticipate how matters might affect their focus and performance. What’s more, you’ll be in a better position to offer support if you recognize what they’re going through. Understanding your employees is a critical first step in leading through distractions and hard times. Working for a supervisor you know genuinely cares about your well-being and not just how productive you are is an incredible motivator. Consider implementing a flex-time policy, or a similar arrangement, where employees can work at those times when they feel most productive. This is one way to help keep your employees moving toward your organizational goals while acknowledging their need for space to process major societal events.

Make work a safe space

If the workplace feels like an extension of what’s going on in the world (divisive, chaotic, uncertain, etc.), then some of your employees will continue to feel distracted and unable to do their best work. In contrast, if work is a place where they can come in (or login) and do work that they love, with coworkers they enjoy working with and supervisors who support them, then maybe the time they spend at work will feel like a reprieve from the chaos. This won’t always be the case and there will be times when you’ll need to address these distractions head-on. At a minimum, remind your employees how to access your company’s Employee Assistance Program, if you have one. Most EAPs provide webinars on stress management or free access to counselors. Also, initiatives like employee resource groups offer more informal opportunities for employees to connect with one another and provide the perfect space in which employees can discuss what’s happening in the world and how it’s affecting them.

Cut them some slack

There will undoubtedly be times when there is nothing you can do to restore focus, and at these times it’s best to just cut your employees some slack. For example, if you’re in a position to offer your employees a chance to leave early, extend a deadline, or find another way to offer them a guilt-free reprieve, then do so. They will appreciate the extra care and come back feeling more focused and able to be more productive.

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