Managing In Times Of Trauma

I’ve always told my managers that we don’t get paid for the good days, we earn our money in times of crisis or when things are falling apart faster than we can deal with an emergency.

Imagine how the superintendent of schools in Broward County must have felt when a former student began shooting up one of their schools. This is how Education Week described the challenges that Superintendent Robert Runcie faced,

There’s no real way to prepare for having 14 children and three employees killed on your watch. Or for finding yourself on the receiving end of the grief and anger that result. Or for handling the avalanche of problems that suddenly falls in your lap. You can practice all you want. The reality becomes very different,” Runcie said. “It absorbs you and takes over your life.”

When tragedy strikes your organization, your MBA won’t help you unless you rely on your instincts as a leader as well as a compassionate human being.

There are many examples of where confidence in a leader is lost during a time of crisis. 

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie faced criticism when he and his family vacationed at Disney World while his state faced a massive snowstorm. And if that wasn’t enough, the Lt. Governor was in Mexico at the same time.

Compare that to how TJX president and CEO Edmond English handled things after September 11th when 7 of his employees died when their plane crashed into the World Trade Center. He immediately gathered his staff, confirmed the names of the deceased, and brought in grief counselors. But that wasn’t all. He chartered a plan to bring the families of those who were lost to the company’s headquarters and personally greeted them at the airport when they arrived at the airport. He made sure they knew they were going to be taken care of.

When a crisis hits, effective leaders:

Create an environment where’s grief is dealt with.

This could include bringing in professionals to work with staff as they deal with their emotions and fears. But you have to make sure that your employees know that things have changed and that working together, the team will get beyond it. There is a story about a New York City publishing company that on after the 9/11 attacks insisted that it was business as usual. Meetings went on as scheduled, and managers questioned why people wanted to leave early or watch the devasting news on TV.

Leaders are visible.

You don’t have to say anything. Show your natural emotions. Let your colleagues know that they are not alone. Remember how effective and emotional it was to see former President Barack Obama hug the parents of those lost in school shootings? Obama was present. He said little. He was our ‘comforter in chief.’

Consider What Resources Are Needed

Every situation is different. Ask yourself what your organization can do to help ease the grief of your employees? This is when your commitment can be helpful. After a fire destroyed student housing at the University of Michigan, former Business School Dean B. Joseph White broke from his scripted remarks at a meeting to pledge the University’s support to house the displaced students. He took out his checkbook and wrote out a check to help students with their extra expenses. It didn’t take long for word to spread, and soon, many others were offering their support and helped many of the students.

Discuss what happened.

Your instincts will tell you when it is essential to bring everyone together. When one of my long-time managers passed away, I gathered the entire staff together to explain what happened. I offered a few comments, as did others. Finally, we all sat in silence. No one wanted to leave. We wanted to be together. While no one said anything for the longest time, it was essential to have our peers around us. Without saying anything, eventually, employees left one by one. I told everyone they could go home unless they had to be on the air at our radio station.

Figure out the next steps.

After the initial grief passes, the management team and staff need to discuss how the organization will move forward.

Finally, leaders monitor how people will react in the weeks or months ahead. 

Employees should be encouraged to take advantage of the professional services offered by your organization or institution.

It is essential not to try to pretend that everyone heals in the same way or reacts in the same way. As children’s TV pioneer Fred Rogers put it, “Anything human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”

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