How to lead your team during difficult life-affecting events

by | Aug 3, 2022

Sign with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr about injustice - how can leaders help their team through difficult social issues?
Image Credit: Photo by Heather Mount/Unsplash.
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Remember the unwritten rules when it came to work? Don’t talk politics. Leave your personal issues at home. Keep your head down and just do your job. The only appropriate time to discuss non-work-related topics was at the water cooler. Ah yes, the water cooler. Where we practiced the art of meaningful discussion around important current events like Monday Night Football and reality TV.

The world is different now. It’s no longer chatting about the game-winning drive; it’s about taking a knee. It’s not about reality TV; it’s about real life.

To put it bluntly, we live in a post-pandemic world filled with ambiguity, hatred, and fear. So how do we, as leaders, address these tense and relevant societal issues?

It would be foolish to presume this short write-up could solve these very complicated, unique, and personal issues around racism, sexism, hate, and violence (just to name a few). In fact, that is not the point of this article. On the contrary, this post is centered around what the role of a leader should be during these tumultuous times.

To begin, is it appropriate to even broach these topics in the workplace, especially as a leader? The short answer is YES. But it’s not that simple.

On one hand, in today’s professional landscape, there’s no longer a distinct line between professional and personal lives. The idea of “work-life balance” is obsolete. We don’t make life changes to support our careers anymore. The inverse is the new normal: we now choose jobs that support our life passions.

On the other hand, it can be very risky to initiate discussions around these sensitive topics. What if you say the wrong thing? What if you offend someone? You can even potentially face legal actions if you make a mistake. But no matter how you assess this situation, one conclusion is evident: in today’s age, choosing to stay silent is not only riskier, but also detrimental to future growth and success.

Here are four quick pointers on how you can most effectively lead and engage your team in today’s unprecedented times.


Acknowledge the present

Times are changing at a rapid pace, so how can we go about “business as usual?”

Be brave and confront change with action. And your first action should simply be acknowledging what’s happening in the world instead of ignoring it. American author Earl Nightingale once famously stated that “the opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it’s conformity.” Leaders don’t sit on the sidelines. They inspire change. And to accomplish that, the first step is acknowledging and understanding the situation.


Be authentic, be brave

Beware the pitfall of lip service. If you’re not authentic in your motivation to address current events, you’ll immediately lose trust with your team. If you don’t know the details of the societal issue(s) at hand, educate yourself. Read about it from multiple, different sources. Ask yourself how this is relevant to your own life. Ask yourself how it could be relevant to someone different than you. Which leads us to… 


Practice empathy

You’ll be tempted to come up with solutions. But a leader doesn’t have to make all the decisions (a common misconception of a leader’s role). Listen first, then listen again.

Bill Gates described leadership by saying the following: “As we look into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.”

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Not knowing may seem like a sign of weakness, but that is furthest from the truth. Practicing empathy will allow you to see your team members in a whole different light and it will bring your team closer together. After all, how can you empower others if you don’t fully see who they really are?


Follow through, follow up

It’s not enough to start the conversation. You must continue it. This isn’t just an exercise or a one-off workshop. It needs to become part of the culture. And it’s not about being “more woke” or “politically correct.” In fact, it’s because today’s consumers demand it. Whether you’re a leader for a CPG company or a B2B service, being both culturally and politically aware is critical for success.

And remember, in creating this new culture of openness and discourse, your role as a leader is not to provide solutions. Instead, your role is to provide a safe environment that encourages vulnerability, honesty, and trust.

The world is moving forward at a rapid pace. It’s foolish to think that our daily lives will return “back to normal.” The traditional water cooler chat is no longer. Small talk is a thing of the past. Consumers today don’t just demand brands and corporations to take a stand on certain hot topic issues, they expect it. You must embrace the change or get left behind.

This article features just four short pointers on how to address important current events as a leader. It’s important to note that the best way to accomplish these four points is to champion diversity in your teams. The last thing you want to do is create yet another bubble of similar thoughts and experiences. That will just further propitiate conformity. Instead, welcome different perspectives. Invite different walks of life. Create change that not only affects the workplace, but also the world.

For more insights on leadership and the future of the work in marketing and advertising, download the 2022 Rosie Report study

Topic: Inclusion
Written by Will Hong
Will Hong is a Brand and Marketing Executive with a core passion for storytelling, strategy, and design. He’s also a baseball nut, a cigar enthusiast, and a karaoke fiend. Follow Will on LinkedIn and Instagram.

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