Where there are people are emotions. If you are leading people over the past year you have had to focus on moving forward, despite destabilizing and anxiety producing uncertainty. This requires helping your employees wade through emotions like disillusionment, loneliness, grief, anxiety, and fear. It’s likely you have experienced these too. To remain effective in this environment, leaders need to “mediate and integrate the stressful process that flow up and down the organizations and minizine the amount that is passed on unprocessed.” Many are not used to doing this in the workplace, especially the at current scale and intensity.
What is a leader to do?
My first encounter with coping with a crisis at this scale was the early years of the HIV pandemic, and what was learned then is helpful now. Here three ways help effectively traverse the current emotional dynamics.
- Be real, relatable and relevant. You are human and going through this experience with your employees. My research found that leaders had high levels of emotional exhaustion during early years of the HIV pandemic  as are many are now. Leaders who express sadness in a crisis situation are viewed positively.  Be honest about your experience of this collective crisis within appropriate bounds, so that it is make it okay for your employees to do the same.
Calibrate your understanding of where your employees are emotionally and with where you are emotionally, a disconnect between those two can magnify disillusionment and grief. “ . . .leaders are often equipped with the resources and wherewithal, to move more through the stages of grief, disillusionment, uncertainly and exhaustion more quickly . . ., the larger organization typically lags behind and might take two or more years to work through the same personal and emotional challenges.”
- Act with bounded optimism
The most helpful leaders are those can “hold”. They listen and support their teams helping them make sense of the present, by creating space to do so and interpreting what is happening during uncertainty, what is changing, what is not, and what responses are appropriate now while creating a realistically optimistic vision for the future.Communicate that we are not likely to go back to the way things were and we could be better than before. Ask yourself and your people: What are we learning from this time that we want to remember moving forward? What is working? What is not working? Use the insights from your collective responses to shape a future with shared ownership and meaning.
Take time do some perspective taking and meaning making with a mentor, a colleague, a coach and /or a counselor. That will help you keep focused and help you avoid a disconnect with your employees.
- Connect with the purpose of your organization. My research found a sense of personal accomplishment doing something that “make a difference” was correlated with decreased feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that grief can bring about. And was correlated with lower levels of burnout and depersonalization. Twenty-eight years later those findings are reinforced.
Refine and share you understanding about: What are we here to do? How does the work you do matter? How does the team’s work matter? What work do we need to focus on the most now? Help people connect their work to that of others and to the reason why your organization exists. This helps ground people and clarifies what to prioritize.
How you respond to this crisis is perhaps the leadership challenge of your lifetime. It is an opportunity to reimagine the workplace, humanize it and lay the foundations for an effective post-pandemic organization.
Deirdre M. Danahar, MSW, MPH, LCSW, PCC is a professional coach working with emerging and established leaders in business, government, higher education and not-for-profit organizations. She is the Owner/Principle of InMotion Consulting & Coaching and is Faculty for the Millsaps College Else School of Management’s Executive Education Advanced Applied Leadership Program.
 Hawkins, Peter & Shohet, Robin, Supervision in the Helping Professions, 4th Edition, Open University Press, 2012
 Danahar, Deirdre M. & West, Phyllis M., A Preliminary Study on the Relationship between Grief and Burnout for Social Service Workers in the HIV/AIDS Field., 1993, Tulane University School of Social Work Master’s Thesis
 Madera, J. M., & Smith, D. B. “The effects of leader negative emotions on evaluations of leadership in a crisis situation: The role of anger and sadness.” The Leadership Quarterly, (2009). 20(2), 103–114.
 De Smet, Aaron; Tegelberg, Laura; Theunissen, Rob; and Vogel, Tiffany, Overcoming pandemic fatigue: how to reenergize organizations for the long run., McKinsey & Company, 2020
 Petriglieri, Gianpiero, “The Psychology Behind Effective Crisis Leadership”, Harvard Business Review, 2020