Being a Good Boss in Dark Times

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Senseless acts of violence affect all of us. Mass shootings, suicide bombers, assassinations — the emotions such events bring up are strong, even if our personal connection to the events themselves is not. Feelings of sadness, pain, confusion, and anger don’t get checked at the office door. If you’re leading a team or an organization, how can you help manage the emotional culture of the people you’re responsible for?

I had an opportunity to explore that a few days ago when I spoke with a Derek, the COO of a large, publicly traded company based in the Midwest, the day after yet another tragedy. We spent the first ten minutes talking about his trip to some of their European offices the prior week and some questions he was thinking about. At a pause, I asked him how he was reacting to the latest tragedy. Derek talked about when he heard, how

family reacted, and how terrible it was. I asked him what it meant for him as a leader and he paused. He wasn’t sure.

As we explored how the event affected him and how it might affect his employees, Derek thought through some possible actions and created a plan. In the process, we recognized some valuable lessons for leaders in communities facing exceptionally difficult events.

  • Bring your emotions to work. Some people believe that emotions should be left at home. In fact, for a long time this “myth of rationality” guided workplace expectations. And yet, it’s impossible. We all have emotions, and asking one another to not bring them to work or to repress them is, in the former case impossible and in the latter unadvisable. Research by Daniel Weinberger, a psychologist at Stanford University shows people who consistently repress emotions have a higher risk for asthma, high blood pressure, infectious diseases, and overall ill health. Emotional Intelligence is a cornerstone of leadership and it involves understanding our own and others’ emotions and navigating them affectively – not suppressing them.
  • Be willing to be imperfect. Derek has a blog. He said he might write about his reflections on the tragedy later in the week, when he had more of the facts and understood more about what happened. We talked about the possibility and impact of blogging sooner – that day even – and sharing his confusion and upset, instead of or maybe in addition to his later analysis and perspective. This was not his typical approach, which, I think, made him uncomfortable. Brene Brown, the noted researcher in the field of vulnerability says that being imperfect is about being vulnerable and that the most dangerous myth about vulnerability is that it equals weakness. On the contrary, she says “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t’ always comfortable, but they’re never weaknesses.”
  • Create psychological safety. Amy Edmondson’s research on psychological safety shows that the most effective teams create an environment where people feel comfortable making mistakes and being authentic without fearing ridicule or reprimand. Psychological safety is imperative for high performing teams. Leaders can signal and create psychological safety by bringing the conversation into the room. Ask people how they are doing and what they think about what happened. Demonstrate that it’s okay to talk about what is on their minds.
  • Let horrific behavior fuel your resolve for good behavior. When I asked Derek what the event meant to him personally he said it made him even more committed to ensuring that his organization was as inclusive and diverse as possible. Thankfully, this is already one of Derek’s strengths. He is one of the most inclusive leaders I’ve ever worked with. Rather than retreat with this latest terrible event, he used it as a springboard to re-engage his organization around the importance of diversity and inclusion.
  • Deal with your discomfort and talk about what is important. This was a lesson for me as much as for Derek. It was tempting for both of us to keep the conversation “all business” when we talked. Derek had a lot on his mind. But it felt wrong. Innocent people were dead and injured, just because they were “different.” That’s tragic. To not bring that into the conversation would have been stepping over something important, just because it was uncomfortable or felt like it was “not about business”. But treating people poorly because of their difference IS about business because we know that it happens in organizations all the time and it’s not just hurtful, it’s a bad business decision.

I wish Derek and I did not have a reason to have that conversation, and yet it served as an important reminder to me that a leader’s responsibility is far broader than to strategic planning and operational execution. A leader sets the emotional tone and example – in good times and perhaps more importantly in bad.