The dark moment that may define you

It happens once in a career. Twice maybe, or if you work long enough, three times. A genuine catastrophe strikes someone in the office, or maybe the office itself. It could consist of anything that “changes the psychological landscape” of the workplace, according to author and executive coach Morey Stettner. The real preparation for such an event, he says, is psychological and doesn’t have much to do with contact lists, policies or well-situated exit signs. Here are his simple action steps so that one day—hopefully no time soon—we can be of immense value to a staff searching for answers and comfort:

1. Let people process news on their own terms. Stettner recalls a supervisor who, after a disaster struck a business in the Midwest, kept approaching everyone to offer sympathies and engage in dialogues and discussions of procedure, not letting people have their space. This had the effect of actually heightening everyone’s anxiety. Give everyone a chance to digest everything that’s going on before assuming your guidance will help things in that moment.

2. Show concern and compassion. Don’t tell people what they should feel and think. The time for critical analysis will come, but it’s well down the road; initially, treat everyone’s shock or grief as completely valid, and show people that your humanity is what’s on fullest alert, more so than your business persona.

3. Stay composed to model a response. Your reaction as an office leader will likely trickle down to others. Your body will want to speed up your voice and raise it; be aware of what it’s doing and resist it if you can. People will become more stressed if you display behavior too far outside your normal baseline.

4. Don’t issue a “get back to work” edict. We’ve all heard this one: “There’s nothing to be done, folks … we’ve all got a job to do, so let’s do it.” Some events are a little too big to compartmentalize effectively. Rarely is anything lost if people are allowed to take some time to discuss an emerging situation that concerns them. That goes for anything from a death to a hurricane warning, even all the way down to the firing of a well-liked employee.

Difficult People D

5. Put the editorializing in your pocket. The last thing anyone needs is for a manager to opine on the causes of the situation, make sweeping generalizations, or worse yet, bust out with the old “This is why I always urge…” routine. Put yourself on a three-day judgment diet to avoid the trap many leaders fall into: believing that their position carries with it the obligation to assign a meaning to everything.

6. Don’t react impulsively. Just as you should practice holding back before reacting to a statement that seems to merit a strong response, you should learn to temper your calls to action until you have both the evidence and staff sentiment that you need to put a plan in motion.