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