Faced with Loss, Managers Must Understand Context
In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, President Trump’s press conferences have been labeled tone-deaf and lacking empathy and clear direction. Generalized statements about incompetent governors and an understatement of the need for medical supplies has damaged his ability to take command of this crisis.
Here’s why: a resilient leader’s communication must take into account the emotions and experiences of individual listeners. To lecture the citizens of New York with the same words as the citizens on Wyoming is to ignore the reality of differences between these two states. As of this writing, NYC alone has over 67,000 confirmed cases and more than 2600 deaths. Wyoming, although the least populated state in the nation, has not reported any deaths. Two very different states require two very different types of messages. It’s a lesson for anyone in a leadership role: without context, general communication is ripe for failure.
Lest the reader thinks this is a political post, let me use another example from my backyard—literally: the sinking of The Pilgrim.
The Pilgrim, a full-scale, 3-masted replica of the ship immortalized by R.H. Dana in his classic book, “Two Years Before the Mast"—started sinking on March 30, 2020 in the Dana Point Harbor. For over 21 years, literally more than 400,000 fourth and fifth graders had spent nights on the ship, as part of a living history program.
The children were put into challenging roles, becoming mates on each cruise. Like sailors in the 1830s, they learned how to rig the ship, prepare meals, and row boats into the harbor to get hides. Discipline and obedience to the captain was foremost as everyone had to be on the same page to make the ship work.
Beginning on March 30, crowds gathered around the listing vessel that had entered the harbor in 1981, destined to become the largest classroom for the Ocean Institute. For the next few days, I’d walk down to the harbor and listen to adults sadly remember their adventures aboard this ship. Others recalled how the Pilgrim was always the centerpiece on the annual Tall Ships Festival. A sadness permeated the crowds.
Now, cost and the vessel’s age destine it to the graveyard of ships that can’t be repaired or salvaged. This was all front-page news in the Orange County Register. Nothing appeared that day in the LA TIMES. The reason: what is heart-breaking news for residents of Orange County is not critical news for resident of Los Angeles—and rightfully so.
Now more than ever, managers need to heed close attention to the individual concerns of team members. The anxiety of an employee who is a single mother with two children will be different than the anxiety of an older employee who is a few years’ short of retirement. Every situation is different. It requires exquisite listening—not only with the ears but also with the heart.
Challenging times to be sure. The astute and resilient manager will carefully consider these questions first:
What do I know about this person and how COVID-19 might be impacting his life?
What does this person need from me in the way of support (over and beyond a paycheck—which might not be possible at this time)?
When this crisis is over, what would I like this employee to say about how I/we handled it?
In times of crisis, a sense of community, compassion and commitment will go a long way for helping us all deal with loss. Now—the ball is in your court. Let me know how I might help you.