Managing During External Upheaval

With one crisis after another pounding our country and our communities – from events like Charlottesville to still more white policemen acquitted for murder of black men to hurricanes and earthquakes to the daily insults and injuries perpetuated by the Trump Administration – this year we’ve been getting a lot of questions like, “When something huge happens out in the world that I know is affecting my staff (and honestly, me too!), what do I do?”

All of this depends on your context, but here are four things we’ve seen work well during these events:

1. Acknowledge it. Tell your staff that you’re thinking about what happened, whether that’s in an email or a team meeting. (We share a sample email below this piece.) Feel free to share your own feelings about it so that your staff members know there’s room for what they may be going through. (“You all, my heart sank when I heard this morning that the Administration intends to repeal DACA…”)

2. Carve out room for it. Use existing structures you have, like check-ins or staff meetings, to invite people to share if they want. In a check-in, you might say, “There’s a lot going on in the world this week. How are you? Do you want to talk about it before we dive in to our agenda?” You might also schedule a separate, optional team meeting – for instance, in a staff meeting you might say, “No pressure at all, but if we set-up a separate time for people who want to talk about this together, who’d want to join?”

3. Empower people – including yourself! – to do what they need to do. You and your team will be more engaged and productive if people know they can do what they need to do to sustain themselves. Be realistic and upfront about what the work requires, but look for ways to create flexibility and agency for your team within those requirements.

  • Good ol’-fashioned management and one-on-one conversation can help a lot. Talk to your team about prioritization, and what has to happen now versus what can wait. Often there is more flexibility about what has to get done by when – and more opportunity to renegotiate deadlines – than your staff members realize.
  • Be clear that you want people to do whatever they need to do to sustain themselves. Tell them it’s fine with you if they want to talk to a friend, go to a rally, or escape for a bit. Again, be upfront about what the work requires, but convey maximum flexibility within that. This is not a time to insist on “face time” in the office.
  • Suggest down-time, either by going to individual staff members and suggesting they take vacation days (this is easier if you have reasonable vacation policies!), or by telling the entire team, “You all, we’ve been working really hard – we’re going to close early on Friday so people can get a little extra rest.”
  • Model all of the above yourself! If you feel like leaving early to go to the gym or to spend a little extra time with your kids, do it – and let your staff know that you’re doing it and why.

4. Remember that everyone’s different. People experience these crises differently; some will have strong reactions at work, others may not feel comfortable showing emotions around colleagues, and others may not be feeling much at all. Your staff members’ identities (race, immigration status, gender identity, etc.) will likely shape – but not determine – their reactions, so be attuned to the ways in which you and your staff members might each be coming from different places. At the same time, don’t assume you know how people are reacting or what they need; use the tips above to help you meet people where they’re at. The ideal outcome here is that, even in traumatic times, people feel supported, heard, and set up to work well over the shorter- and longer-term.

Of course, there are times when what happens not only affects people personally but also is quite closely tied to your work, like the impact on immigrant rights groups and directly affected members of their staff when Trump announced he was rescinding DACA. When that’s the case – when you need to deal at a personal level and reshape your work to respond – it’s much more complicated. We shared a few starter thoughts in our “Managing to Resist” piece here, and we’re here to talk if we can be helpful as you navigate a situation like that.


Sample email to staff

Hi Team,

I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened with X yesterday, and I suspect a number of you have been too. I’ve touched base with the other managers on the team, and we wanted you to know a few things:

  • We have your backs. We want you to feel safe, supported, and able to bring your full selves to work. And I know that for some of us that’s hard at a time like this. Please ask for what you need, and we’ll do our best to support you in it.
  • We’re making room to talk about this if you want it, though it’s totally optional. Your manager may ask you whether you’d like to talk about it in your check-in. We’re also scheduling a call people can join; stay tuned for timing. (We’re also not offended if you’d rather talk to someone who’s not your manager, or to no one at all.)
  • Whatever you’re feeling is OK. This impacts us all differently, and we all have different needs at times like this. If you just want to plow ahead with your work, that’s great; if you need something different, that’s great too.
  • We can’t pretend the real needs of the work have disappeared, but we also do have flexibility in how it gets done. If you need time to do something different – whether that’s going for a walk, talking to a family member, visiting a therapist, heading to the gym, or whatever – please just talk to your manager. We don’t want to pretend nothing has happened, or that you can just shut off your thoughts and feelings about it when you walk into the office.

Please reach out if you need anything, whether it’s a sympathetic ear, help with your work, or flexibility.