Leading & Healing Through Traumatic Times

I worked for a company that had to be sold during the 2008 financial crisis in order to keep it from failing. I spent my entire career there, so it hurt – badly.  Some people told me I cared too much for the place. That is probably true, but who doesn’t care about where they invest so much of their time, energy, attention?

Watching people lose their jobs with little prospects of finding another one soon and listening to people talk about how worried they were to see how their families would react when they no longer had a steady income was grueling.  It was not only financial loss in compensation and stock holdings, but also personal loss and embarrassment. It hurts – badly.

There’s no question that this type of company trauma must be kept in appropriate perspective with real life trauma – diagnosis of a significant illness, loss of a loved one, acts of violence or a natural disaster. Traumatic work events can create a similar sense of loss, fear, anger, and uncertainty.

When loss, fear, and uncertainty are present, it is not an easy time to be a leader. As a leader you too are having similar personal reactions, but you also need to lead the business and care for your team.  Leaders react differently, but it is common to tell others to keep their heads down for ‘business as usual’ or to put on a cheery face to try to keep people focused and motivated.  While well intended, neither strategy will help employees heal.

Why does healing matter?

It will accomplish several things:

  • Refocus people on their customers and the business at hand more quickly
  • Connect the team to the company in stronger ways
  • Open up better lines of communication and trust for the long haul

Here are seven strategies we have seen leaders implement to help employees heal.

Physician, heal thyself: Take care of yourself. Spend some time venting or asking questions; whatever you need to ‘purge’ some of the toxic feelings and gain clarity on how you are honestly experiencing this and how you want to ‘show up’ as a leader through this.

Get in front of the news: Do everything you can to give information and context to your leaders and your employees.  While it is not always possible to tell everything, it is important to open up lines of communication and to show up as a trustworthy partner. Tell your team what you can, admit what you don’t know, and ask them what is on their minds.

Listen: Get out of your office. Get out of corporate headquarters. See your employees. See your customers. Hear what is on their minds—offer a few solutions if you have them. But, more importantly, listen – gather ideas, take notes, and follow up with gratitude for their time and ideas as well as a plan as to how you will use this information to support them at this time.  This is the time for people to be heard.

Build business IQ:  I have seen leaders use challenging times to help others understand the business model, its inherent risks, impact of market forces, etc. By doing this, employees understand the complexity of the business issues and why certain business decisions are being made. With this understanding, employees feel a sense of control and can be better stewards in the future. It connects their role with the broader mission of the company.

Show your humanity: During traumatic times, people are worried – about their jobs, their careers, their families and loved ones. Some tend to soul search about why something has happened or what they could have done to help prevent it.   This is the time to show compassion and humanity.  Talk about how the event is impacting you personally. Create an environment where others can talk. Take care of each other.  This sends a clear signal that you and the company care about them as individuals, and this allows them to heal faster and trust more.

Realign the team’s focus: Focus the team on what work can be/needs to be done.  Make sure people are aware of expectations during this time.  It helps focus others and clears out the ‘muck’ of political chitchat.  Remind your team often how their efforts are important and necessary during this time.

Shift the environment and culture for future success: You must think more seriously about how to ensure that what brought you to this quagmire will not repeat itself or keep you stuck and slow you down. Use this time to focus on how to change the culture. This includes an honest assessment of what led you to this place – whether it was that expectations went awry, you unintentionally rewarded wrong behaviors or leadership missed key internal or external signals. Then, intentional plan to reshape the culture. Creating and shaping a strong, healthy culture requires time and intentionality; it is not easy, but it is doable and absolutely worth the effort.  Our next several posts will delve into how to do this successfully.

While traumatic business times are painful and seared into our memory banks for a long time, they can bring about strong, healthy changes and long-term loyalty when handled thoughtfully and with care.

As the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche said: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Words often quoted normally have a ring of truth.

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