Coping with Barcelona

Thursday's tragedy revives a debate on how leaders should respond to employee fears.

On Aug. 17 a van plowed into crowd of people on in Barcelona, killing at least a dozen people and wounding dozens more. Tragedies like this one, along with the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, just a few days earlier, can cause fear and anxiety in any workforce, experts say.

Korn Ferry Senior Client Partners Andrés Tapia and Kevin Cashman wrote about this very issue after a bomb scare in New York in September 2016. Below are their thoughts about what leaders can do to help calm the nerves of their workers. 

It was another Monday morning at Zeenu, a startup in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. Tired workers returning from the weekend gulping coffee. Talk of the Giants football team eking out a victory. As normal as you get.

Except, of course, it wasn’t a normal morning. In the same neighborhood, a bomb stashed inside a dumpster had exploded over the weekend, injuring more than two dozen people and generating a stream of unsettling news accounts. Did Zeenu have a plan of action to help worried employees? Would its managers have any organized response?

The company isn't real, but the likelihood that it probably didn't have a response—and tried to carry on with business as usual—is very real.

Be it organized terrorist attacks in Paris or more isolated but nightmarish bombings in Boston, the times are as tumultuous as any in recent years across the globe.

Paralysis is a natural reaction at companies, since there is no certain path to restoring workers’ nerves. But there is a strong case to be made that the head-in-the-sand approach will spawn a workplace that doesn’t, well, work, and that will be distracted. The best approach may call for leaders who can:

  • Acknowledge uncertainties where there is denial
  • Be transparent where there is guardedness
  • Provide insight where there is fog and ire

While we can’t presume to be able to weigh in authoritatively on all particulars, we believe from research and proven experience in the value certain leadership principles hold for those wanting to respond in a meaningful and constructive way.

Principle 1: Acknowledge the concerns

What employees are experiencing emotionally outside the company’s walls is not left behind as they arrive at work and swipe their ID badges. The sense of threat and insecurity is an underlying tension that saps productivity, and things only get worse when leaders don’t acknowledge this reality. When leaders offer words of comfort and reflection, however, and encourage teams to take time out to talk about what is going on, it helps create integration between the societal, the personal, and the workplace. Our times call for leaders with the courage to speak about these polarizations and forge a third way. Omission through passivity is not a neutral stance. It can actually contribute to polarizations.

Principle 2: Make it personal, first through reflection and then action

Leaders, like everyone else, are personally affected by these events. To be an effective leader in this context, it is helpful to pause and self-reflect on exactly what these effects are.

This entails a process in which leaders connect with their core values, principles, and beliefs. Conscious leadership begins with this kind of centering. Only by admitting to ourselves that we too are feeling vulnerable, afraid, and even angry, and then doing the work of gathering perspective and strength from our core beliefs, can we then begin to offer genuine empathy and clearer thinking to nurture more constructive environments within our organizations.

From here leaders can speak publicly and personally to create more relevance and connection. The most authentic stance from which to offer insight is from the vantage point of one’s personal story. How have the events affected each person emotionally and practically? Opinions can be debated as right or wrong; personal stories much less so.

Principle 3: Emphasize inclusiveness

In unsettling times, the importance of inclusiveness, and inclusive leadership, only grows. Leaders can facilitate the conversation toward helping employees determine how they can collectively come up with and implement ways to help bring deeper understanding of the feelings and experiences of their colleagues.

Today’s polarized environments can stir more blaming than bridge building. Leaders can help all sides listen to one another so they can acknowledge and own their part in forging new solutions rather than merely blaming those with different points of view.

Leadership and teaming skills honed within the corporate walls at all levels of the organization are needed in the engagement of these tumultuous events outside the organization. Skills such as empathy, self-awareness, creative problem solving, stakeholder management, influence, and teaming are needed to determine and help reduce anxiety in the workplace.

Principle 4: Project a willingness to change

Nervous workers will look toward leaders who can adjust to change quickly. Inclusive leaders understand that they not only need to include others, but they must also “include themselves” as the first-movers of change. It is paramount for leaders to change strategy, systems, and culture to transform organizations. But too often we forget the foundational, most elemental aspect of change: changing our own mind-set, heart set, and purpose set.

As one mature CEO shared with us, “If I had only known earlier in my career to drive change less and be the change I wanted more, I could have accelerated positive, compelling, inclusive change faster.” In times where strong leadership is needed, let’s not forget to first be the change we want to see and then accelerate it.