Leading Your Employees in Times of Crisis
by Gregory P. Smith

In the days and weeks since the terrorist attacks, the American workforce has been on an emotional roller coaster. People have fallen to terrible lows of fear, grief and depression, risen to mountain top experiences of national patriotism, and fallen again. On and on it goes. While no one knows the outcome of our current situation, one fact is indisputable: the out-of-control emotions of our employees will have an impact on our organizations. How can business leaders lead in the wake of this tragedy?

No two people will respond to these events in exactly the same way. Some may seem unaffected, others may exhibit out-of-the-ordinary behavior, still others may react in dramatic ways. In offices across the United States, employees have walked off the job out of fear. One person emailed me and said his employer fired him because he failed to show up for work the day after the attack. The employee’s excuse? He was depressed. What a terrible thing for an employer to do.

Managers have a critical role to play in these uncertain times; indeed, how managers treat their employees today will continue to resonate tomorrow. Just as the United States is forming a strategy to combat terrorism, managers need a strategy for helping their companies get through the current crisis. I offer the following 10 steps that are organized under the acronym TAKE CHARGE for managing, motivating and leading your employees in a radically changed work environment:

T - Target fears and anxiety.
Employers who act appropriately and provide a supportive workplace will go a long way to improve retention and loyalty after worklife begins to return to normal. People traverse through a span of emotions during crisis situations beginning with concerns over their individual safety, their family, their friends, their job and finally their financial security. Announcements of job layoffs have exacerbated fear and anxiety. Managers should have plans to address each of these concerns in order of importance.

A - Accept the fact performance and productivity will drop.
People respond differently in crisis situations. Expect to see lower attendance, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, and requests for sick leave and increased absenteeism - all normal responses. People will need to talk more, and this is a natural aspect of dealing with tragedy. The more they talk the healthier the organization becomes. Simple expressions of concern and help with simple, daily tasks will go a long way to improve productivity.

K-Keep communication open.
Information is a powerful energy source. Meet with staff members at all levels to express grief, as well as to promote available resources and other services. By increasing the use of grief focus groups and town hall meetings you can go a long way to helping people deal with the crisis. Keep websites updated and provide a place for people to watch or listen to the news at the workplace.

E - Educate managers and supervisors.
Front-line supervisors and middle-management are the back-bone and the first-line of defense. They should be equipped with the resources, information and authority to assist employees as close to the front-line as possible. Training should include how to identify post-traumatic syndrome, how to communicate with people under stress etc. Unless you work in a small organization, avoid centralizing this responsibility. Many companies have alienated their workforce by giving one person the sole responsibility to approve schedule changes, sick leave etc. By centralizing, employees face long lines, unreturned voice mail and greater frustration, alienation and anger.

C - Calm, confident and reassuring leadership style.
Don’t underestimate the importance of your personal leadership style. In times of crisis a heroic style of leadership becomes important. Managers should attempt to compartmentalize their own personal fears and feelings. Personal examples of Mayor Giuliani and President Bush have done much to gain the confidence of the American people.

H - Help those in need first.
First and foremost - make no assumptions on how people feel in times of crisis. Some individuals may need professional assistance so insure they understand how to access the employee assistance program. (EAP) Family members and employees activated for military service are particularly vulnerable. Identify employees who have family members in the military and also know those employees who are in the reserve and National Guard. Ensure they know that by law, employees activated for military service will be guaranteed a job when they return from active duty.

A - Allow people to display their emotions.
People are as diverse as their emotions and they display them in different ways. Allow them to display flags, momentoes and other forms of patriotism. Let them know it is OK to cry and that anger is a natural part of acceptance and recovery. (Some truly caring companies always make provisions for their employees’ spiritual and emotional health. In my new book, I talk about Interstate Battery Company’s employment of a fulltime chaplain to assist people with grief and other emotional issues.)

R - Restrict negative behavior.
Even though anger is part of this process, make sure you draw the line to prevent actual abuse, harassment and verbal venting of their anger on other people. Make clear, in no uncertain terms that behavior of this sort will not be tolerated and will be dealt with in the strictest terms.

G - Get people to focus on a higher calling.
The purpose of terrorism is to have an impact on the greatest number of people. When people go through terrorism it creates psychological damage on their self-worth and security. It violates them and attempts to rob them of control over their life. Management’s role is to give control back to people to focus, and to motivate them toward a cause where they can feel they can make a difference. Therefore, getting employees to help with a charity, donate blood or to focus on something to give them a feeling of control will motivate people to move on.

E - Expect and plan for recurrences.
Most terrorist attacks and crisis are over and done with quickly and then people recover. This won’t be true here. With military deployments and the possibility of war facing Americans, forthcoming media sensationalism will further heighten the psychological trauma. The impact will be with us for a long time to come. Keep your disaster plans and emergency notification rosters updated. Prepare yourself for what could be a long and emotional campaign facing America.

Embracing these ten steps is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do from a business standpoint.

Remember, in the opening scene of the movie Gladiator, how Maximus rallies his soldiers with the words, ‘What we do in life echoes in eternity?” The same is true in the workplace. Your employees will remember how you treated them during this highly emotional time. If you want your organization to be a place the best and the brightest will want to work in the future, you must be very careful in what you do in the here and now. Just be aware that this crisis could be a test not only for our nation, but for many of our companies and careers.


Gregory P. Smith is the author of Here Today Here Tomorrow: Transforming Your Workforce from High-Turnover to High-Retention. He is formerly a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army and was a consultant to the Army Surgeon General. He served during Operation Desert Storm and was involved with managing the aftermath of other terrorist attacks involving military forces and civilian employees overseas. He speaks at conferences, conducts management training and is the President of a management consulting firm called Chart Your Course International located in Conyers, Georgia. Phone him at 770-860-9464 or visit his website at http://www.ChartCourse.com.

Articles by Gregory P. Smith | See also Authenticity & Ethics, The HR Refresher and The Leadership Imperative in The CEO Refresher Archives

   


Copyright 2001 by Gregory P. Smith. All rights reserved.

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