In times of tragedy, leaders must respond

Human Connection; leaders; leadership

By Gretchen Pettet

We woke yesterday to the horrendous news out of Las Vegas.  Overnight a gunman opened fire on a concert, killing at least 59 and injuring an unconscionable number of people.  Our collective hearts are broken for the victims and their families.  Most of us don’t work in a field or industry directly impacted or called upon to act in response.  But as leaders, respond we must.

Many people spent the early morning hours watching news reports and checking social media trying to make sense of the news, news that weighs heavily on each of us. It’s hard to work when your heart is broken.  As the senselessness became more clear, sorrow turned to anger.  It’s hard to work when you are angry.  Frustration mounts as time passes and hopelessness arises.  What can we do, how can we make a difference?   It’s hard to work when you are frustrated, it’s nearly impossible when you are hopeless.

Business schools and leadership programs are woefully inefficient at teaching leaders how to care for the emotional well-being of their staff.  When senseless acts of violence or natural disasters strike, often real leadership emerges.

What can leaders do to support their employees during times of tragedy?

Acknowledge the tragedy.  Ignoring the tragedy doesn’t make it go away and it doesn’t stop the hurt.  It’s not just business as usual.  A reassuring word from leadership can make a big difference in how employees process the experience and in how they feel about the company for whom they work.  Failing to address what happened can leave people second guessing the intentions and motives of an organization.

Be open about how you feel. Gone are the days when the boss had to be super-human.  Acknowledge the emotions you are feeling encourages others to do the same.  Tragedies can lead to feelings of isolation.  Let your staff know they are not alone.

Create a safe space for discussion.  We are human, it’s helpful to talk about things.  Focus discussions on ways your organization can help.  Can you take up a collection or host a blood drive?  People want to feel like they are making a difference.  There is so little we can control in times of tragedy, putting employees in a position to help can minimize anxiety.

Connect on a human level.  Take time to reach out to your staff.  Have lunch in the cafeteria or make small talk waiting for the elevator.  Senseless tragedies, particularly mass shooters, dehumanize us.  Taking time to connect with people individually is reassuring and can help restore faith in humanity.

Leaders have a responsibility to be there for their team. How you lead during times of tragedy influences how your staff will think about you, your company and the role they play in your organization.   Even experienced leaders are often reluctant to say something for fear of saying the wrong thing.  Rest assured your team likely won’t recall what you said, just simply that you said something.

How one leader responded

What follows is the transcript of Joshua Aranda’s message to the Mission Matters Group team during a hastily scheduled  meeting on October 2, 2017 following news of the Las Vegas mass shooting.  Josh is Vice President and Co-founder of Mission Matters Group:

I am going to be pretty raw here because we have to talk about this stuff as a team, as a community. As I am reflecting today, I think immediately what can I do?  How does this happen? What’s going on in this guy’s life? What’s going on in all those homes of families who are waking up without their loved one? This really messes me up and I am trying to break it down and make sense of it.  What’s actionable? What can I do to make this world a better place?  Fortunately, we have this really awesome thing that we can do with this company.

I have to say I’m sorry because for the last month I’ve been very consumed by all the work we have in front of us.  The more we think about our work without putting it into context  we contribute to the problem.  We go against what I think the solution is.  The solution lies in making a human connection.  Who didn’t say hello to this man, who didn’t show him some love?  I couldn’t get through this day without bringing this up as a team, as a company because we are very much a part of the solution.

What we do every single day matters and how we do it matters. When we are working together or in collaboration with each other, when we are working with a client, when we are out and about, and  hold a door open for somebody it matters.  Making a human connection is absolutely essential in the well-being of us as humans.

This situation makes me angry, but I know that anger is not the solution.  I couldn’t keep going on like business as usual because it’s not business as usual today.  It shouldn’t be business as usual.  The more we avoid talking about this stuff and how real it is, that mentality wins and we can’t let it win.  This is going to fuel me. I have to wake up knowing that people know they are loved.  How we do things and why we do things is super important.  This has to fuel us.  It’s not about tasks.  We do this work to make the world a better place and if we forget that then more stuff like this will happen.  We get to be part of the solution to making sure stuff like this doesn’t happen again.

Mission Matters Group works with nonprofits to deliver impact through technology, processes and people.

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