Lead with empathy: Tips for managing your team through difficult times

Walking into Oslo on Saturday lunchtime to see the flowers being laid in tribute, the atmosphere was palpable, yet hard to describe. A mixture of defiance, sadness, disbelief, were just some of the feelings that hung thick in the claustrophobic air.

Under the grey skies and warm summer rain, coming into work in Oslo this Monday morning, those emotions had not simply dissipated, either from the collective community, or from the individuals on our team. It would have been weird to pretend like coming into work was normal.

Do employers really have a duty to say anything in circumstances like this?

“Is it our place to say something?”
“I don’t know if I should say something, or what I would say”.
“I’m not sure our team wants us to say anything”.

In days gone by, we might have fallen back on received wisdom that the workplace isn't the place for politics. But in these times, that argument doesn't just feel outdated, it feels obsolete. The world of work has undergone rapid changes over the last few years, and working from home has further seen the edges of our personal lives bleed further into the sphere of work, and vice versa.

We (quite rightly) expect companies to actively care for employee well-being; as a result, our concept of what a manager is has changed as a result. It’s not only about leading a group of employees and maximising their output and profitability. Instead it’s about leading people, based on shared goals and values.

But acknowledging large cultural events and crises at work isn’t about bringing politics and ideology into the workplace, so much as being human and recognising that big important things happen outside the office that can have an impact on people inside the office. As a leader, the risk isn’t in saying something, it’s in remaining silent coming across as uncaring or insensitive to the people you’re responsible for.

How to meet the needs of your team in difficult moments

There aren’t any 100% right or wrong answers to managing teams through difficult periods. So many factors can influence what is appropriate or necessary to support your team in a given scenario.

We’ve put together some suggestions to help manage your teams through difficult or traumatic events. Don’t use it as a checklist of things you should specifically say or do, but instead use it as a framework to make sure your crisis response is structured and considerate to the needs of your team.

1. Acknowledge appropriately

People will still think and feel about events that impact them, regardless of whether you acknowledge it or not. It’s human nature to fill empty spaces, by saying nothing at all people will more than likely guess at what you’re thinking.

  • Acknowledgement doesn’t mean pretending to have all the answers, it’s more about showing that you care and have considered the impact
  • You’re simply allowing people to be people at work, rather than only employees, and giving them permission to overlap their personal and work lives
  • Unless truly relevant, don’t focus on the impact for the company, or you personally. Be clear that it’s about understanding the impact it may be having on your people
2. Gather your team as quickly as possible

Bringing your team together helps to address things with a sense of community; and it simplifies communications by making your response visible and specific, rather than remaining fragmented and ad hoc.

  • This week at Equality Check, we kept our regular weekly Monday morning standup, but replaced the usual round table of weekly priorities with an open format to discuss the shooting in Oslo
  • We had an open format which allowed room for simple comments and shared thoughts, as well as an opportunity to ask specific questions
3. Offer everyone in your team one on ones

This is about understanding that responses to trauma and crisis are very personal and can vary a lot from each individual. Some of the team will be impacted more directly than others, or may feel more able to share what they need privately than in a group session.

  • Find out what they need and want most
    • Do they just want a private channel to vent and let out their thoughts?
    • Do they need help with practical resources such as mental health, or legal resources?
    • Do they need concrete help on work tasks such as important deadlines or communicating with clients or customers?
4. Be inclusive around your public responses

Crisis communication can obviously happen quickly and make processes and approval difficult compared to other brand communications. But within reason, try and loop the team in on your planned public statements as a brand.

  • As much as your team represents the brand, the brand also represents them
  • Is there something the team would like you to express on their behalf?
  • Do they feel the tone of your statements are appropriate?
5. Create dedicated discussion spaces

Sometimes leaders and managers shouldn’t always be responsible for leading every activity, as long as they can help facilitate.

  • Discussion spaces are useful since they show an understanding that trauma and crisis response don’t have a quick fix
  • Set a clear objective for any groups/channels to create and be clear on who they’re for
  • Set clear community rules and get a skilled facilitator to make sure they’re followed- it doesn’t always have to be a senior manager, it can be a willing experienced or more senior team member
  • Possibilities for confidentiality and anonymity should be core to any space you create
  • Can you use a set up from existing employee resource groups to help speed things up?
6. Consider what else your management team should do

Beyond some key actions to consider in your immediate response, it’s always helpful to think of additional concerns that your executive team might think about.

  • Do you need to formulate a communication plan for clients/customers?
  • How can you spread the load across your leadership team? Supporting your people in difficult periods can be mentally exhausting
  • Create a crisis management plan for the future
    • The aim here is not to create a cookie cutter response to every incident with cut & paste public statements, but to clarify the what, when and how of your response
    • This is so that management can concentrate on creating an authentic response, rather than being slowed down by worrying about practical details of the who and what of the company response