The election of 2016 was the most bitterly contested since that which preceded the Civil War. This election accentuated divisions along race, gender, religious and class lines. Accusations of sexism, xenophobia, bigotry and elitism were hurled back and forth. Deep and troubling fissures appeared in the relationships between friends, old and new, family members and, yes, co-workers. The workplace is just a system within a broader system, a microcosm of society, so it’s not surprising that it has been significantly impacted by the rancor, hostility, anger, and fear that this election has produced.
Recently I have spoken to several executives inquiring about the challenges they are facing in addressing the intensity of feelings engendered by the election, and finding the appropriate way of addressing them.
Our election season has resulted in palpable feeling of threat on multiple levels. Our brain responds instinctively to threat. The prefrontal cortex shuts down and the amygdala turns on the fight or flight instinct, which in turn responds with either intense fear or anger. In this post-election environment our employees can revert to the preservation of self (versus teamwork) and the familiar (versus a broader more inclusive diversity and communal preservation.) A good leader must meet these unique challenges in order for the organization to succeed.
So, a good leader must understand how to create the environment that will help quell this fear and anger, and gently nudge everyone back to a productive, goal-driven center. The good leader will help create the pathway to achieving the desired common objective. Research shows that to achieve this goal, we must:
Create an environment in which people valued as individuals.
None of us are any one thing. We are simultaneously citizens, workers, neighbors, parents, partners and more.
Take extra time to show interest in someone’s child, a parent’s health, their artistic hobby or athletic interest. Focus on the identities that go beyond politics and that ultimately bring us together. Consider investing in more social time with the team.
Replace feelings of fear with feelings of reward.
To divert the brain from fear, reward it with feelings of safety, trust and accomplishment. Foster gestures of inter-team kindness and support. Recognize individually and collectively all contributions. Go overboard in letting people know how appreciated they are, especially for their collective efforts.
Revisit core values and team goals.
Your core values as a manager should be respect, trust and collaboration. Take a strong stance on these values. You must instill a sense of safety to remove the sense of threat. Refocusing the team on its business goals will enable it to function more effectively as a team. The leader might gather her team with the sole purpose of acknowledging the intensity of the political season, and the great importance that everyone feels accepted at work and are able to focus on the tasks of team goals and objectives. Facilitate a fun icebreaker to relieve tensions. This is where the experience of safety helps the brain do its job of removing the sense of threat and need to protect oneself. Helping the team refocus on its business goals, will give the brain a necessary break from the emotional agitation triggered by the election. Everyone is mentally exhausted; regardless of for whom they voted. The brain finds focused tasks relaxing, and even more so when the tasks are based on positive collaboration. It is the leaders job to facilitate this.
Stay calm when others around you are not.
The leader must understand his emotions, what motivates them, how to control them and how to utilize them in a way that is most beneficial to his team and therefore the organization as a whole. Admittedly, this is not easy.
When individuals are in fight or flight mode they are cautiously, yet desperately, scanning their environment for safety and calm. As a leader, it is up to you to provide an environment of safety and calm. This doesn’t require dramatic statements or gestures; instead be open to listen with patience and humility, be mindfully present, stay focused and continuously reward that which keeps the team united and not divided.
This election may have shown us how far apart we as a society stand from one another. This is obviously going to be reflected at the workplace. However, on a positive note this provides workplace leaders an excellent opportunity to foster team resilience that transcends differences and to guide her valuable and often vulnerable employees through a complicated healing journey. In the end, wouldn’t the fact that your team found comfort and hope at work be the ultimate mark of your leadership success during perilous times?