Emotions are Non-Partisan: Leadership in Perilous Times

By Nora Infante, PsyD. Four years ago I wrote a blog about re-uniting the post-election workplace. Emotions were high on all sides and divisions along race, gender, religious and class lines were something few of us had ever experienced in our lifetimes. Many of my clients expressed uncertainty as to how to address these deep divisions within their organizations and fear of doing or saying the wrong thing that would end up making matters worse.

At the time I spoke of how our brain responds to feeling threatened by becoming hyper-vigilant against anything or anyone that challenges our sense of security and familiarity. We become more focused on self and like-group preservation than on communal preservation. Diversity in and of itself can be seen as a threat and risk. It goes without saying that this is not good for organizations that thrive on the crucial values of diversity, collaboration and communication.

Certainly we all hoped that four years later we would have come through a difficult socio-political time reunited out of a recognition that “together we are stronger.” I will say that organizations did manage to re-focus on business and teams continued to grow, despite the initial intensity of emotions the 2016 election produced. However, after the 2020 election and the recent events in Washington DC, we are now a nation more divided than in the last 150 years; our body politic is suffering greatly.

Emotions are running at a dangerous high. Negativity, fear and rancor are part of nearly everyone’s daily experience. We might have hoped to learn more about communicating and building bridges with those different than us over these last four years, yet the opposite has happened. Studies show people have become even more isolated within their own group, having little interest in even considering a point of view that is not their own. And when someone wants to find ways to maintain civility, their efforts may be met with suspicion or derision. 

The emotions taking center stage are typical of the emotions that surface during high periods of perceived threat; emotions that activate the fight or flight instinct: fear and anger. Leaders have a big job on their hands. They must do what they can to ensure their productive workforce is not contaminated by the overall climate of contention and motivate their colleagues to remain focused and hopeful.

How does a business leader succeed in doing what our civic leaders have not? How does she help the organization move away from fight or flight behavior when it is being promoted and reinforced at every turn by political leaders and the echo chamber of the social media?

It is important to remember that at the end of the day, the brain isn’t just in search of danger and threat, it is equally in search of calm and safety. If the world at large hasn’t shown us how to find calm and safety while living in diversity — the microcosm of the workplace might. A healthy organization is a place where diverse people can let their guard down and work together towards common goals. In that sense, the workplace may succeed where society has not.

There are a number of ways a leader can promote a culture that teaches people how to coexist and cooperate vs. alienate and divide. It is highly unlikely that the emotions that caused division will disappear any time soon. So, these leadership tips need to become embedded in our culture in order to drive the change needed to advance, whether as an organization or broader society.

  1. Don’t ignore the situation. These divisions will not disappear on their own. You need to take the lead.
  2. Recognize the difficulty and discomfort people are feeling. Acknowledge the depth of emotion many people are feeling and how difficult it can be to listen to a point of view different than your own.
  3. Model active listening and respect towards others. This means teaching people by example the basic rules of civil discourse: speak from your own experience and do not speak for or at others.
  4. Be aware that all eyes are on you for guidance and direction. Do not let your own emotions get the better of you. People are in need of examples of emotional stability. It is the perfect time to focus on what unites us as an organization, a people, what our common ground is.  
  5. Maintain an empathic tone. The 2020 election revealed a 50/50 split among the electorate so many will surely be distressed. Demonstrate an understanding of how hard it is to maintain cool when emotions are strong. Some may even need a day off to gather themselves.
  6. If you have to give opinion on the impact of the election on business, keep your sharing exclusively to business issues. Do not share political or personal views and analysis with anyone other than your very close group of trusted peers and refrain from advertising your views on social media.
  7. Take the opportunity to really drive home the organization’s core values and how they are reflected in the culture the organization collectively creates. It is important to remind everyone to not let political differences and strong emotion disrupt important working relationships.

2020 will go down in the books as one of the most challenging leadership years in U.S. history. A pandemic, a spotlight on racial injustice and violence, a hotly contested election and ensuing insurrection, and environmental disasters have all combined to put everyone in a position of vulnerability. While there is no roadmap for leadership through these times, we can rely on some basic survival instincts that go beyond fight or flight and lean-in to the greater human needs of safety, trust and cooperation. As a leader it is your time to foster a work place that can maintain diversity even during complicated times. Your faith in “together stronger” will be instrumental in moving your organization forward through the storms still around us, and those still lying ahead.

For more about leadership, understanding emotion, and communicating in perilous times, schedule a consultation with Nora.