News Got Them Down? How to Manage Your Team Thru Public Tragedy

Author’s Note: I’ve had this post on my list to write for weeks now. I keep putting it off, hoping that I can forget about it, but the kind of events that inspired it just keep coming. After seeing reports from Baton Rouge and Miami this week, I can see where the need still exists for these words.

As leaders we all find ourselves needing to help a team member through a traumatic event. Typically these are things like the loss of a loved one - perhaps a parent or other family member - or maybe a divorce or significant illness.

For most people it is easy to tap into your humanity and provide the support needed. Your organization might even have a plan in place for these instances that can guide you through the rough waters of managing someone dealing with sadness and pain.

But what do you do, as a leader, in times of more public tragedies? Is it reasonable that your team may feel stress from something that happened to unknown people, hundreds, even thousands of miles away? And how do you manage your team through that stress?

National/Global Tragedies and the New Community

It is difficult to turn on the TV or radio, or visit the web without seeing reports of a tragedy. The unfortunate reality is that these events have become a part of our lives, be they in France, the Middle East, Missouri, Texas or Florida.

So is it conceivable that your team, sitting in an office with no direct connection to what has happened, can and are affected by these events?

The answer is yes, and why lies in the definition of community.

First, understand that when a larger scale tragedy happens, it reverberates through a community. Even those who don’t know anyone personally involved can feel the effects. James Hawdon, a professor of sociology at Virginia Tech University, identified that "The entire community often defines itself as being the target, as being the victim” in a study on the effects of the Virgina Tech shooting in 2007. In fact, 10 - 15% of a community can suffer from depression or PTSD after devastating public tragedies.

Notice the word that keeps cropping up, though. Community. It has an effect on the community. The important notion to tie up with this data is that, in the digital age in particular, the idea of community is no longer localized.

Where’s the complication? Let’s look for answers in the dictionary definition of the word:

Com·mu·ni·ty - kəˈmyo͞onədē/noun
1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.

2. a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.

It’s that second part of the definition that we must be mindful of. Community is more than the people you live near. It’s the people you identify with. People who share the same thoughts and ideas and philosophies as you. They are a group of people that, for whatever reason, you identify with.

And those people may live hundreds or thousands of miles away. But they are still your community, and what happens to them has a good chance of having an effect on you, or your team.

Recognize the Need…

So we’ve established that members of your team might experience issues caused by stress, anxiety or depression in the wake of a public tragedy. But it’s unlikely they will come and tell you about it. They may not even recognize that their feelings are affecting them at all.

But their work and their demeanor can show what they don’t say.

Pop quiz - look at the list below and write down which ones are signs of someone who no longer cares about their job, and which are signs of stress:

  • Calling in sick or frequent allergy attacks
  • Overly worried
  • Mood swings
  • Anger easily/overreact to small annoyances
  • Frequently showing up late
  • Trouble learning new things
  • Isolating themselves from the team
  • Sloppy appearance
  • Reduced productivity
  • Saying they are overloaded (even when they have a normal work load)
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Disorganized
  • Forgetful
  • Highly defensive

From a management perspective, they all look like an employee who is about to tell you to take this job and shove it. The reality is, these are all signs of stress.

If you’ve got a great employee who suddenly starts acting differently, or shows some of the above symptoms, hold off on the call to HR for a performance plan until you’ve had a chance to talk to them about it.

Understand, too - they may not even realize what is going on. This is a critical time when being a good leader can make a real difference to another human being. Address it early, firmly, but kindly. Make sure they understand what they are doing, give specific examples and explain what it’s doing to the rest of the team. Then work together to figure out a way you can help.

…And Then Answer it

During that conversation, charge your team member with taking responsibility for identifying how you can help. They need to help you figure out how to help them.

If they can’t come up with anything, make a few suggestions:

  • Time period of reduced workload: You’re probably not getting the best out of this person anyhow. Give them a chance to right themselves with less work for a specified period or time
  • Suggest a few days off: again, if you’re not getting the best out of them, or they are hindering your team’s productivity, it’s better for you and them if they take a day or two
  • The option to walk away: Are they flying off the handle at almost nothing? Encourage them to - gracefully - remove themselves from a conversation that is raising their hackles. Go for a walk. Then come back and address what’s needed
  • Come to you with requests: if they find something later that will help, your door should be open to them

Walk the Fine Line

Many people won’t want to talk any further about what’s going on in their heads. Knowledge workers are notoriously private people in the workplace. But that’s not a hard and fast rule.

Your job in this is to remove the obstacles that are preventing a productive workplace for the employee and for the team as a whole. Juggle schedules, move dates (if you can), see if you can get in additional help. But sometimes the conversation goes outside the bounds of the workplace.

Some people will want to share what they are going through. They will want to unburden themselves. And as humans we have a natural tendency to want to help. But what if the discussion makes you uncomfortable? You’re an IT manager, not a psychologist, after all.

Situations like this can put leaders into a tough spot. It’s hard to find that appropriate balance between being helpful and caring and being a dumping ground of personal information you never wanted.

The good news is, you’re not alone. There is lots of help within and outside your organization that you can point the employee to. It’s ok to say “I want to help you, but I’m not the right person for this” as long as you help them find the right person.

Help is… Over There

First and foremost, you should talk to your HR department, whether you need help or not. They should be aware what is going on in case other team members, or other teams, bring up any issues. They can, and will, help run interference.

If your team member is someone that needs extra support, HR can help there, too.

Their job (or someone in their department’s job) is to be deeply aware of employee benefits, and what help can be called upon. For instance, do you know if your company has an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) and how to use it? Are you aware what level of benefits the employee has, and the ins and outs of their coverage?

Of course you don’t. But HR does. And they live and breathe to help in these kinds of circumstances, just like your team lives and breathes code or architecture or networking.

Many of these rules apply whether your team member is dealing with a very personal tragedy or are part of a community coping with loss. A good leader will watch out for increased signs of stress and depression in their teams, and then help and get help for those that need it.


Don't Punch the Clock

Mike was one of my best employees. His projects were on time and well tested before going to QA. He worked well with other teams, and with out team members. He took direction well, and sought out guidance on his career. He was communicative, and years after I left the company where we worked together, he continued to advance his career and moved in the direction he had wanted to go, into management.

I hired Dominic twice. The first time it was a recommendation, the second I dragged him across 2 states to get him to work for me. Dominic was always dedicated, constantly working to improve his skills and knowledge. He would ask for help when he needed it, and pushed me to be a better leader by always challenging me.

John I also hired twice. John was the first "regular" employee that I coached into management. He was dedicated, open to feedback, and highly technical. He worked hard to understand the business side of the equation and was well respected by those he worked with. He had the kind of confidence you love to see in a leader, and a collaborative style that makes you want to work with him.

While not the only top performers that ever worked with me, these three share a common thread, beyond being fantastic employees. How were they similar? Unless there was a good reason, none of them came in before 10 am (Dominic usually edged toward noon). They each had their reasons. And if there was an early meeting or a dire need for them to be in the office by a specific time, they were there. Otherwise, it was a late start to the day for each of them. And each of them stayed late each day they came in late, without anyone telling them to.

This seems directly counter to what is expected in most business cultures, doesn't it? Aren't you supposed to be in your chair by 9 am (or 8 am)? And you're only a good, productive employee if you sit there until 5 pm, right? If you don't follow that pattern, you're a slacker. That's what traditional business philosophy tells us, and I've worked for many places where that remains the expectation.

But these 3 - and many others - prove otherwise. Most of the time they had choice and autonomy in their schedules. They came in at a time that worked for them, and they worked until they were done. They were loyal, talented, strong performers with a sense of urgency in their work. They were, and still are, the antithesis of "slacker".

You may not have a lot of flexibility with time management with your team, but if you have any at all, let your team benefit from it. Start by remembering that each person has different needs. Try and meet those needs as best you can within the constraints you have in your role. Try one of these strategies that will meet the letter of your company's policies but still give some flexibility to your team and their schedules.

- Stagger start times - let earlier risers come in and leave early, and night owls come in and leave late. This allows you to always have someone on your team in the office
- See if you can set "core hours" - times when everyone must be there but they can come in before or after that time as best fits their needs
- Strict office start and end times? I never forced my teams to take PTO for appointments and such. Giving someone 2 hours every few months to take care of something important let's them know you care about their well being, and, really, when's the last time any of us only worked 40 hours in a week?
- Be willing to treat each person's need for flexibility differently. Treating people fairly is different than treating everyone the same

The people who work for you should be - and hopefully are - adults and professionals. Treating them as such shows that you respect them as individuals, and makes it easier for them to return that respect. By giving them some autonomy over their own schedules you'll be on the path to creating a happier and higher performing team.


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