As I sit here on a Tuesday morning in my home office, I am astounded by how our world has changed in such a short time frame. Two weeks ago, my family and I were going skiing on Spring Break, we were looking at adding office space, I had just purchased furniture, I was planning a big extended family get-together, and we were hitting all of our numbers in the first couple months of 2020.
The Covid-19 pandemic has turned our world upside down. Markets are volatile, the Olympics are delayed to 2021, there have been runs on supplies, and many of us know people who have tested positive for the virus. Over the past week I have been in contact with numerous clients, family and friends concerned and bewildered. We are all worried about our loved ones getting sick, our means to make a living, our healthcare system, and our country. First, we ask how could this happen? Next, we ask, what kind of response do we need to have as we lead our families, organizations, and communities through this changing environment? Finally, we begin to realize how much we have lost already.
In a State of Grief
As psychologists, we are trained in Critical Incident Stress Management. Over the years it has come in extremely helpful with our corporate clients. Examples include debriefing traumatic events such as when a bank robbery occurred and tellers were traumatized, when a beloved co-worker died unexpectedly and grief was overwhelming, when a tornado devastated and traumatized numerous teachers and students in it’s wake, and, of course, the horrific aftermath of the Oklahoma City Bombing. We rolled up our sleeves and jumped into these situations and saw first-hand how individuals responded when “our people” were devastated, lost and fearful. We, as a team, are seeing similar reactions with our current clients, colleagues and friends during this health and economic crisis. We are seeing grief. I had never anticipated writing a blog on a subject that is typically reserved for natural disasters and loss, but it seems very relevant this week.
Many of you took Psychology 101 in college and probably remember the 5 stages of grief. This is absolutely what we are going through as a nation – we are in grief. Many people are experiencing tremendous loss as a result of this global pandemic: loss of life, loss of loved ones, loss of health, loss of jobs and income. For those who are losing loved ones at this time, there is also the loss of the normal rituals of funerals and communities gathering to grieve together. The Kubler-Ross model outlines the five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Acceptance is where you want to be. I will say here, dear reader, that the quicker you can move your people to Acceptance and faith moving forward during this crisis, the better off we will be. As you observe the responses at your team level and even at a national or global level, notice that they seem to break down in this way:
Stage 1: Denial
This stage manifests with statements of disbelief or challenges to given facts. We all saw comments and reactions on social media and saw people on beaches and bars who were in total denial. Examples might be:
As a Leader: Ensure you are making decisions based on real projections and facts. There is all kinds of misinformation out there. You will have to make quick decisions that will have far-reaching ramifications. Remember to address each of the facts in a way that takes into account the diversity in thinking on your team – keep the big picture at the forefront, be logical, have the culture and people in mind and give next steps or the logistical details.
Stage 2: Anger
Once someone realizes that the bad news is in fact real, the next response is often anger. This is when people’s emotions start to ramp up and logic and decision making isn’t at its best. Examples of this stage would be:
As a Leader: Make sure you are self-aware about any anger you are feeling. You, quite honestly, were probably having a pretty good year so far. But letting this anger and “what ifs” get the best of you is a trap. You don’t want to dig into that anger and make blunders such as limiting information, passive aggressive comments, or “shooting the messenger” when you get bad news. Being as timely and as transparent as possible in all your communication so that people aren’t having to guess at what is going on is key to moving forward.
Stage 3: Bargaining
Bargaining is a more constructive stage and a turning point. When I returned back to the office and realized what we were facing, at this stage, it almost felt like I was moving in slow motion…but then I started to look at the context of the situation. During this stage, people start to gain some perspective and consider the bigger picture…and some potential trade-offs. They might sound like this:
As a Leader: It can take a few days to get here, but this is where you start to reflect and take a more level-headed approach. This is when you start to feel a sense of control over the situation and therefore a sense of calm. While you need to keep abreast of the situation, you definitely need to monitor your media intake at this time so that you can keep focused and not get distracted by how low stocks are and how many people have gotten sick in the last 24-hours. Stay in the present and don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Collaborate and get input from your team as to how you can pivot effectively right now.
Stage 4: Depression
It’s hard not to feel down about the immediate future as you look at your options in a crisis like this. I can’t tell you how many tears I’ve shed in the past week. It’s easy to look at postponed events, canceled work, restricted travel and gearing up to be virtual in all interactions and then get overwhelmed pretty quickly. This stage looks like this:
As a Leader: The important thing is not to wallow or get stuck in that stage. You do have to have those little breaks…you are human after all. Allow yourself to feel the sadness and regret, but as soon as you can move to the next stage you will be energized and feel a sense of progress. Word of warning here – do not skip over this stage with your employees either. Listen to them and be empathetic. Also, know that you may revisit this stage over the next few months. Acknowledge it and move on.
Stage 5: Acceptance
The sooner you and your team can get to acceptance and then faith you will make it through the better equipped you will be to make decisions and create and implement a solid strategy. Having the faith to move forward is knowing that at our core we’re more than anything we will ever face, and we can handle whatever life brings us. We always have and we always will. That is the power of the human race.
As a Leader: Faith is what fuels us through times of fear and uncertainty. It is more powerful than any emotion, even fear. When all hell is breaking loose, it gives us the ability to find our center, to help ourselves and others to find answers, to find a higher meaning in the midst of our pain and in spite of our fear. And if you’re a leader, you take that certainty and transfer it into others, because human conviction has a viral effect and will spread. You bring unwavering certainty to chaotic environments through the power of your acceptance and faith in your team and your deliverables. That steady vision and faith in the outcome will serve you and your organization well.
We Are Resilient and Adaptable
This won’t be the only crisis this world will ever go through, and it won’t be the only crisis any one of us ever goes through, and it certainly won’t be the only crisis that anyone we love ever goes through. People are shaped not by how things go when things are going well; people’s lives are shaped by the most difficult times. We have a resourcefulness that says no matter what happens in life, who I am is bigger than anything that could ever happen to me or anyone I love. No problem is permanent, and nothing that happens establishes who I am. Take this as a time to reflect on your accomplishments to date, downshift if you need to, leverage your strengths and re-position yourself for the future. You will be able to look back at this time in your life and tell stories about how we all leveled up and conquered an invisible threat…together!
Leadership is calling your name…