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Managing after disaster

Exec coach: Recover with exercise, music, movies—and work

by on
in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, it’s futile to think we’ll resume our business-as-usual lives. We won’t. At least not yet.

For Laurence Stybel, the key is to rethink how we manage our emotions—and our employees’ emotions. As president of Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire, an executive coaching firm in Waltham, Mass., Stybel urges managers to adopt new strategies to motivate a shaken work force.

WS: In the weeks since Sept. 11, have you noticed any mistakes that managers are making with their employees?

Stybel: I’ve been advising managers to listen, listen, listen. A lot of managers aren’t willing to do that. The worst thing you can do is say to a scared employee, “Just relax. No planes will smash into our little office. Get back to work.” That’s not going to help. By essentially saying, “Look, get over it already,” you’re dismissing someone’s understandable fears. And, admit it, you’re probably worried about the same thing.

WS: So what should you say?

Stybel: Let employees share their feelings. Don’t cut them off. One way to respond is to say, “Let’s look at the big picture. What are the terrorists trying to do? Put us under chronic, unrelenting stress. Let’s figure out how we can fight off that stress so they don’t win.”

WS: What are some stress-fighting strategies?

Stybel: Get everyone to exercise. But realize not all exercise is equally helpful. Right now, our bodies want to fight. So give employees a chance to hit some softballs during a break. Or put a punching bag in the employee lounge. Or get them hammering away on weekends on a rebuilding project. I know a carpenter who refers to his hammer as his therapist.

WS: Lots of workers want to hear or watch the news during work. Is that OK?

Stybel: The news will distract and depress them. It’s better to turn off the TV and pipe in music at a low volume that’s slower than the human heartbeat. Light jazz or some classical pieces are good. Jackie Gleason wasn’t a great musician, but he released several albums in the 1950s with consistent rhythms and simple melodies that are ideal.

WS: How are employees holding up after the terrorist attacks?

Stybel: There’s a lot of fear and anger. And some employees appear more irritable, sleep-deprived or unable to concentrate. That’s the norm after such a devastating event.

WS: How should you manage people who seem overly tired or complain of being unable to work?

Stybel: Above all, don’t say, “Take the day off.” That rewards ineffective behavior. If you think someone’s not sleeping well, suggest they see a doctor.

WS: Other ideas?

Stybel: I’ll tell you what we did here last week. We went to each of our employees and said, “This weekend, we’d like you and your family to have two hours of escape at the movies. It’s time.” We gave them tickets to General Cinemas, and they could choose the film. I’ve had so many employees thanking me for this gift!

WS: What advice do you give those who want to get ahead in this post-Sept. 11 world?

Stybel: Understand that the clichés du jour have changed. A few years ago, the buzzwords were “strategic thinking” and “new paradigms.” Then came the focus on speed. Now you should focus on reliability, predictability and consistency. Think like a risk manager. Suggest ideas that offer your company stability, and you’ll stand out

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