how to help your team process the tragedies

How To Help Your Team Process Tragedies Weighing On Their Hearts

A note to our international readers: we recognize that we have readers from around the globe, but our home is in the United States and tragedies at home run deep. Whether you are reading from the US or elsewhere, we invite you to lead with listening and with dialog.

Our future depends on it.

It’s easy to feel like you’re out of words.

We wrote after Ferguson, and just a few months later as more tragedies unfolded in Baltimore. And here we go again. Another brutal, senseless murder, followed by more tragedy and destruction.

We watch with heartbreak as the powder keg of social injustice, economic disparity, and racial tension explodes once again. But this time, spreading even faster, aggravated by our worn-down resiliency and virus-induced uncertainty and fear.

Your team members are watching too. None of us know exactly what to do or say.

Making Space For Grieving and Conversation

During normal circumstances, it’s pretty sound advice to stay away from politically contentious topics at work. We’re beyond that luxury now. Our nation is in crisis. People are grieving and angry and tired and scared. Asking employees (many of whom are still isolated at home) to “leave their troubles at the door” and focus on the customer like so much customer service training suggests, just isn’t going to work.

More than ever we need to really listen with our full hearts to every member of our teams.

A friend of ours is a physician who also serves in a variety of medical leadership roles in organizations and associations throughout the country. He is also Black. As we discussed everything that’s happening he told us that his organization had just reorganized and he got a new supervisor three weeks ago.

“Yesterday,” he said, “she texted me this…” He showed us the message:

I was catching up this evening to make sure you had access to the morning huddle starting tomorrow. Mostly though, and I know we haven’t worked together for long, I wanted to see how you are doing personally with everything currently happening. Please let me know if you need anything or how I can support you.

After we read the message, he continued, “In all the years of injustice and tragedy, she is the first leader I’ve ever had who acknowledged what was happening and asked me how I was doing with it.”

He paused to gather himself. “I can’t tell you how meaningful that was. My father was just diagnosed with the virus, my mother is at risk, I can’t help patients the way I want to, and on top of all of that, every day I see that picture of that man dying with a knee on his neck…”

“I imagine it was awkward for her. It’s certainly awkward for me. I don’t want to need help, but the fact is I do. Any sane person would. It may be awkward, uncomfortable, or imperfect, but we have to try. Try to connect. Try to support one another. I’m glad she did.”

We Have to Try: Listening During Tragedies and Crisis

We’re not experts on how to fix everything that’s broken, but we do know that in times of crisis people need a chance to say what’s on their minds and know they will be heard.

  1. Acknowledge and invite (I know this is a crazy time and we’re all experiencing this series of tragedies in different ways. If you want to talk, I’m here to listen.)
  2. Establish some ground rules for respectful dialogue.
  3. Allow some space (in times like these, members of your team may be rightfully distracted). Give them space to grieve.

It won’t be perfect. It will feel uncomfortable.

And we have to try.

See Also:

This week James D’Silva of Smartbrief on Leadership, put out a direct challenge to leadership thinkers, “Why are leadership thinkers silent about Floyd and the protests?”


Leading through crisis and change

Leading Through Crisis and Change


Coronavirus has turned the world upside down. When you’re called on to lead your team through crisis and rapid change, focus on clear, concise, calm communication. In this episode, get a practical example and more ways you can lead your team through crisis and change.

how to lead rapid change

How To Lead In The Midst Of Urgent, Rapid Change And Strain

Lead through rapid change with calm clarity.

When he started work that week, “Aaron” didn’t know that he’d be asked to guide his team through a Coronavirus response, but within just a few days the situation was urgent. Major clients were making changes quickly. Like many leaders throughout the world, Aaron found himself having to lead through rapid change.

We happened to be in his office that morning as Aaron brought together his leadership team to communicate the next steps. We watched as he gracefully led his team through the day’s urgent situation. The entire office worked with clarity, focus, and resolve. The same principles Aaron used to lead through rapid change will work for you.

As you and your team respond to the rapidly evolving realities of this problem (or the next one):

1. Over-communicate clear, precise actions.

Aaron’s first message was very clear: “We need to call every client, ask them this question … and give them this information.”

Keep it simple. Check for understanding and be ready to repeat what matters most—frequently. When your people are worried and stressed themselves, communication is more challenging. Even with this seemingly straightforward request, there were several questions.

Aaron patiently and confidently reiterated the task: “A phone call to every client. Voice to voice communication is our MIT (Most Important Thing) here. If we can’t do that, we’ll use email for a backup. But #1, #2, and #3 is a phone call. Ask them this … tell them this …”

Focus on clear, concise communication that leaves no doubt about who will do what and by when.

2. Acknowledge emotion.

Ignoring emotions doesn’t make them go away. In fact, it makes them stronger. When you have to lead through rapid change and stressful circumstances, acknowledge how everyone feels.

Aaron looked at his team and said, “I know this is scary and there are a lot of things we don’t know. We have a plan for today. If anyone needs to talk with me individually, I’m here.”

If you’re not sure, you can also take a moment to ask how everyone is feeling. Acknowledge their emotions e.g. “It’s normal to feel nervous or upset in times like this.”

3. Focus on what you do know and what you can do.

Clarity is the antidote to uncertainty.

You don’t have to know everything. Focus on what you do know, on the next steps, on what needs to happen next, and the process going forward. You may not know what will happen or what decisions will be, but you can be 100% clear about what you know and what you will do next.

4. Communicate your confidence.

One of our favorite parts of this meeting was when Aaron told his team, “I know there’s a lot going on and this is on top of all the other things we’ve normally got to take care of—and I know you’re up to it. If you need help, I’m here.”

Your belief in your people becomes their confidence in themselves.

Next, Aaron shared an analogy that he’d learned from a mentor:

As a leader, you’re like a flight attendant during turbulence. When the plane shakes in the air, everyone looks at that flight attendant. If they’re joking or reading on their phone, everyone relaxes. If they’re upset, everyone panics. Your job today is to be that calm flight attendant for your team.

In talking with Aaron, he had his own concerns, but he modeled this “be the flight attendant” approach beautifully. Your team will take their cue from you.

5. Address concerns.

Aaron then took questions from his team. Some involved the work, some focused on personal concerns, and internal company procedures and response. Where he had information, he shared it. Where plans were being developed, he was clear about the process and that how he would inform everyone when the time came. When concerns were more personal, he met with those team members individually.

When you have to lead through rapid change or stressful circumstances, you often don’t know what you’ll show up to—but as a leader you always choose how you’ll show up. Your team needs you to be clear, calm, focused, and connected.

You don’t know what you’ll show up to, but you choose how you’ll show up.

Your Best Way to Lead Through Rapid Change

We’d love to hear from you: leave us a comment and share your best practice for leading through urgent, rapid change. 

You might also like:

Leading When Life is Out of Control (podcast)

How to Lead When Your Team is Exhausted

7 Ways to Lead Well During Times of Uncertainty and Change