Managing teams in times of political trauma — what to do, what to say to boost psychological safety

We talk a lot about creating an inclusive workplace culture. We attend workshops, watch webinars, bring in guest speakers, implement less bias-prone recruiting processes… but none of these matters if your direct manager sucks.

People leave their managers, not their jobs.

No matter how much the company says it cares about diversity and inclusion, if it fails to empower managers to actually act as inclusive leaders, change won’t happen.

When we promise our teams to “bring their whole selves to work” — remember that this includes acknowledging how their lives are impacted by forces outside the office. And just another surface level “unconscious bias training” isn’t going to cut it.

The Muslim ban, Charlottesville, trans military ban, police brutality and killings of black lives, the looming threat of DACA ending… there’s a lot of political trauma people are experiencing these days.

Now, if you are feeling overwhelmed and depressed, it’s completely normal. You may even be thinking, “All of this is so terrible and sad. I need to turn off social media so I can function.” Do whatever you need to get temporary relief from the news — caring for yourself is important so that you can come back and engage productively. Key words here are “temporary,” “come back,” “engage.” Please don’t mistake self-care with apathy. Turning off social media for a couple of days so you can ground yourself before standing in solidarity with marginalized communities is not the same as choosing indefinite ignorance or eating sheet cake every night.

If you are able to disengage and not think about these issues, recognize you have privilege. Many people who are directly or indirectly impacted do not have the option to “turn off.”

We’ve all learned to enter the office pretending to “have it all together.” But the truth is, when your child is sick at home, when your roof is leaking, when you’re going through a terrible breakup, or when someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, we can’t “be there” 100%. Now, imagine these feelings piling up each time you see traumatic public news impacting various marginalized communities. Add to this pile of emotional shit the additional burden marginalized workforce feel to “cover” their whole selves at work.

Your diverse workforce is suffering. Today. Right now.

If you are wondering whether your team is distracted or feeling less engaged at work because of current events, stop wondering. They are.

And this is why it’s imperative for all people leaders to learn to hold space for their teams in political trauma. You never know who may be feeling completely distraught by what is happening in the world today.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had both individual contributors and well meaning managers tell me their internal dilemmas in light of recent political events:

People Managers tell me:

  • “I feel like I should say something but I don’t know what to say.”
  • “I don’t want to open up a can of worms / pandora’s box”.
  • “I don’t want to alienate some people by talking about my political views.”
  • “I feel like talking about politics at work is inappropriate.”

Individual Contributors tell me:

  • “My manager (or leadership / CEO) hasn’t said anything about ______. Do they even care?”
  • “I feel like my office doesn’t even know what’s happening. No one’s talking about it. ”
  • “I want to talk about what’s happening, but I don’t know if it’s appropriate for me to bring it up. I’m scared I’ll be seen as too ‘political.’”
  • “I feel alone in feeling depressed by everything that’s going on.”

NEWSFLASH: Not talking about politics won’t stop people from thinking, feeling, or whispering it.

Your team will remember your silence. Your team will also remember your compassion. Which one do you want them to remember?

So what are managers supposed to do in times of ongoing political trauma? Here are some tips and actionable strategies.

1) Acknowledge what is happening

It doesn’t take a lot for you to just name what is happening. Let your team know you’re paying attention and that you believe it’s important enough to acknowledge it. Don’t be afraid to share your emotions — vulnerability builds trust.

Phrases you can use:

  • “I want to acknowledge what is happening in our country…”
  • “I am devastated by what happened over the weekend…”
  • “There’s a lot going on politically right now…”

You might be thinking, “what if someone doesn’t agree with my beliefs?” Well, this is a real possibility. At some point, you have to make a conscious decision to take a stand by asking yourself: are you okay with your team thinking you don’t care or worse, that you condone what is happening?

Remind yourself that we’re not talking about some nuanced tax policies or foreign affairs strategies right now — we’re talking about you taking a clear stance against obscene and direct attacks on marginalized communities rooted in racism, transphobia, Islamophobia, and other forms of oppression.

2) Check-in with your team

Be proactive in checking in with your team and letting them know you care. Present yourself as a resource in case your team needs support. Leverage your existing communication channels to check in with your team.

Ways to check-in with your team:

  • Do a group check-in in the beginning of your team meeting.
  • Check in with your direct report during your 1-on-1.
  • Send a team-wide email or chat.
  • Schedule a team lunch, or coffee break.
  • Take a walk with your direct reports for your 1-on-1, or even as a team if your team is small enough, to get out of the office setting.

Phrases you can use:

  • Team meeting: “Let’s go around and do a quick check-in on how everyone is feeling. Name one emotion you’re feeling, and one thing we can do to support you this week.”
  • Team lunch: “How’s everyone feeling? How are you taking care of yourselves with everything that’s happening?”
  • Email / Slack: “In light of _______, I just want to check in with you all and let you know that I am here for you if you want to talk or need support. Schedule a meeting with me or come by to chat any time.”
  • Walk: “How about a walk outside of the office? With everything going on, I think we can use some fresh air and breathe.”

3) Reduce or redistribute labor / emotional burden on your team

This is where your understanding of your organizational power and privilege as a manager comes in handy.

Immediately following a traumatic political event, consider reducing the labor burden on your team. You can do this in multiple different ways, depending on the business context. If you have the flexibility and power, allow folks to leave work early to dedicate time for self-care. Allow or encourage people to work remotely if needed. Ask your team how you can shift work deadlines or priorities for them. Involve your team in redistributing people’s workload collectively.

Phrases you can use:

  • “Would it be helpful if we pushed the deadline for ______ to next week?”
  • “Let’s revisit our priorities as a team: what are the most important things we need to get done this week? What can we punt to next week, when we may be more effective in achieving our goals?”

Take on additional emotional burden so your team members representing marginalized communities (e.g., people of color, trans people, etc.) don’t have to. This means you, as a person with more organizational power than your direct reports, should step in to educate or answer questions from employees in dominant groups (e.g., white, cis-gender, etc.) or intervening when you observe microaggressions.

Note the dynamic may differ if you as the manager are impacted and need to offload labor or emotional burden — look for allies among your peers or superiors to support you. Remember that you need support, too.

4) Care for your team as people, not just workers

This is an opportunity for you to be human and treat others like one. Genuinely care about your team’s well being. Half-decent managers should be doing this all the time, by the way.

Ways to care for your team’s well-being:

  • Share articles about self-care and hold your team accountable for practicing self-care.
  • Organize or participate in events showing your solidarity with communities impacted — do this as a team, or let your team know they can join you (e.g., volunteering, protest, phone-banking, etc.).
  • IMPORTANT: Some of your team members may seem distant or disengaged for some time. Recognize this is a valid self-care strategy. Respect their boundaries and ask what support looks like for them. Caring for people sometimes looks like giving people the space and boundaries they need.

5) Host safe discussion spaces

Collaborate with other emotionally intelligent and inclusive leaders to form ad-hoc discussion circles. Send an invite to your teams or announce it more broadly so people not in your department can also join. It’s extremely important, though, to recognize safe discussion spaces take conscious planning and skillful facilitation. If not done well, you may end up causing more harm and lose control of the room to a few vocal, well-meaning but not-so-self-aware individuals. If you don’t know how to handle the “but isn’t that reverse-racism?” conversation, you’re probably not ready to host a discussion space.

Tips for creating a safe discussion space:

  • Set clear goals and expectations for the space: why are you meeting? Is the space for venting, action planning, or something else? Communicate these expectations prior to the meeting.
  • Ensure the discussion space feels safe physically: go for a sound-proof conference room vs. open lunch area. Limit the number of people to a manageable size that feels intimate.
  • Secure a skilled facilitator: ensure there’s a facilitator who knows how to work with different personalities, navigate through tension, and address tough questions. If you don’t have anyone who can fill this role, you may want to consider an external facilitator.
  • Set ground rules (aka “community agreements”) before discussing: these rules can include confidentiality, right to pass, speaking from “I” perspective, etc.
  • Depending on the discussion topic / context, you may want to consider having closed-group sessions for different identity groups. For example, if you want to create a safe space for healing dialogues after a traumatic event like Charlottesville, you may want to create two separate spaces, one for employees of color and another for white allies.

Again, I can’t stress enough the importance of learning how to do this well. You can cause more harm if you don’t do this thoughtfully. You’ve been warned. If you’re interested in hosting a facilitation training workshop for key leaders at your organization, contact Awaken.

6) Develop a formal response as a leadership team

This is some what of an “advanced” tip, given you may not have the right level of influence or power at your company. But for you brave souls, if you haven’t heard anything from your executive leadership team, make a suggestion to release a formal response. It doesn’t have to be an external statement — an internal memo of acknowledgement can go a long way. If you’re a part of the executive team, consider discussing with your CEO the impact of the leadership’s silence on the workforce. Get inspiration from other progressive companies making a public stance on important issues affecting their workforce. Even better if your company can put money where its mouth is.

What to say to your leadership:

  • “Have you seen the public statements released by companies XYZ? I think it would go a long way for us to do something similar, and let our employees know we care.”
  • “I’m feeling our teams are struggling with what’s happening politically. What can we do to acknowledge what’s happening and empower our managers to create a safe space for their teams?”

7) Get support for yourself

You can’t pour from an empty cup. You need to feel supported in order for you to provide support for your team. If you’re not whole yourself, your acts of service will feel performative and hollow. Do you have a workplace bestie you can confide in? Do you feel supported by your manager? What do you need to do to feel grounded and whole?

How managers can feel supported:

  • Form an informal group of inclusive, socially conscious leaders. Meet regularly to brainstorm ideas to reduce bias-based harm in the workplace, share ideas on how to cultivate an inclusive team culture, and to lean on each other for support during challenging times.
  • Seek out external support groups or network of leaders committed to practicing inclusion. If you’re interested in being a part of Awaken’s Inclusive Leaders Circle, sign up here. You’re not alone in this journey!
  • Practice self-care! Create your own “self-care toolbox” — trust me, you’ll need this.

Practicing inclusion takes real work. Inclusion starts with every leader in the company making a conscious decision to practice courage and vulnerability.

You don’t have to be a diversity and inclusion expert to be a great manager, but it takes a great manager to practice inclusion.

We’re living in an era where everyone is trying hard just to survive and resist completely breaking down any moment. As a people leader, you have an opportunity to allow for some breathing room for your team.

Try out some of these tips and report back in comments. We’re rooting for you!

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About Michelle Kim

Michelle is an entrepreneur, activist, speaker, and a coach passionate about empowering individuals and organizations to create positive change. She is the co-founder of Awaken and owner of Michelle Kim Consulting.

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