When things are deeply weird

Silhouettes of businesspeople in shades of black and blue, standing in front of a windowAs leaders, how are we to handle events that happen outside the company, but have a significant impact on our employees?

This is a question that comes up more often than one might prefer.

On 9/11, I was still working in corporate, an executive in a midsize technology company on the U.S. West Coast. We had a number of employees travelling that day – salespeople on sales calls, consultants on site with clients.

I had to suggest to our CEO that we send a company-wide email message reassuring everyone that all our people were safe and that we were bringing them home as soon as possible. He seemed downright startled that I’d think this was necessary.

As Director of the consulting division, I also had to suggest to him that we establish policies for travel over the next few months. Would we require employees to get on a plane, even if they were anxious and potentially panicky? How would we handle requests not to travel? Would people willing to travel be rewarded in some way, and was that fair to those who weren’t because of their fears?

Tough questions.

Into every leader’s life comes a moment when they have to answer tough questions regarding external events. The pandemic raised questions and concerns about working from home, child care, how to manage and evaluate suddenly-remote employees’ productivity, what to do about coming back to the office, and would it even be legal to require employees to be vaccinated?

I can’t answer these questions. They’re all highly nuanced and relative to your individual company, your senior leadership, and the state or country in which your business is located and therefore to the local laws and regulations.

But I’m sure you, your HR leaders, and your senior executives have been and are (or should be) thinking about them.

And then we have the events in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, January 6th, 2021. Was it a riot, an insurrection, a protest that got out of hand? Whatever it was, and whatever events follow (as I write, the FBI is raising concerns about violence at all state capitols in the days ahead, preceding the inauguration on January 20th), employees are concerned, anxious, fearful, and looking to their leaders to provide some sort of guidance about what to think and how to behave.

Is it fair to you, as a leader, to have this responsibility?

Well, actually, yes. You’re a leader, and that means more than just delegating tasks, managing budgets, conducting performance reviews, setting strategy. It means that you have – hopefully, anyway – a certain status in the eyes of your employees, a level of authority that goes beyond just what happens during business hours.

As a leader, what do you say or do when external events have a real impact on your team and their productivity (and peace of mind)?Click To Tweet

Being a leader means setting aside your own beliefs and doing your best to understand that some people on your team – especially BIPOC* individuals who see the unmistakeable difference between how authorities responded to the events of January 6th versus those of Black Lives Matter protests, for instance – may be upset, triggered, and more anxious than you might consider reasonable. (If you’re a BIPOC leader, you already know this.)

Being a leader means making very sure that no one on your team is harassed in any way for their reaction or for their beliefs.

It means making very sure that anyone who might be hateful or potentially violent is not given the opportunity.

And it means understanding that productivity is going to wobble, at the very least, when there are challenges and upheavals such as these.

You have to decide how you’ll talk to your employees about what has happened, what may happen, and the unexpected things will inevitably arise in the future.

All I ask is that you refuse to do what that CEO did, at the company I worked for during 9/11. Don’t abdicate the responsiblity to speak to your people. Don’t fail to reassure them – if you can. (I’m sure I don’t have to say, don’t lie to them!) Don’t let your own anxiety keep you from acknowledging and empathizing with theirs.

You may be constrained by your senior leadership in what you can say – but please say something.

* BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color


Leadership isn’t ever for the faint of heart. It requires emotional labor and can be exhausting, as I write here.

BIPOC is just one of many terms related to discrimination of all kinds. This glossary (updated to Version 7 last week) might help if there are terms you or your team aren’t altogether sure about.


gljudson Professional empathy