5 Tips for Leading a Team in Trump’s America

Managing a team in times of turmoil and political anxiety.

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Picture this. It is a normal workday morning. You walk into your office expecting to hear the usual sounds of work starting to ramp up. Instead things seem, well, off. From the break room, you can hear loud voices — Kien and Michael are arguing about politics again — and the intensity is increasing. Maria, who used to be your star worker but has been struggling lately, doesn’t even notice as you enter. She is staring into space with a worried expression on her face. The office is emptier than normal — several employees must be late — or absent. As you settle in, you wonder if the rally that you passed during your commute will interfere with work today.

Regardless of your personal politics, everyone recognizes that our country is facing tremendous change and upheaval. Change causes personal stress and anxiety and employees can bring this burden with them into the workplace. This article is not about politics — it is about actions you can take as a leader to keep your team focused, productive and on track. In the current environment, that is more complicated than ever.

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Managing people and teams in the US in 2017 requires a delicate balance of compassion for employees and responsibility to deliver results for the company. Here are five tips for helping you to find that balance and manage political anxiety in the workplace

Tip #1: Be aware. Strive to keep up with the news, even if it seems easier to avoid hearing about the controversies. Some Americans have declared that they have stopped reading the news, watching TV or following politics on social media. They find it too depressing and prefer to stay uninformed. As a leader, you can’t chose to be oblivious and still be an effective leader. You need to know what is happening, so you can consider how current events will impact your team and workplace. Some events to watch for that could cause anxiety or bleed over into the workplace include:

  • Controversial situations — such as the FBI investigation into relationships with the Russians that could lead to divisive reactions
  • Proposed legislation — like the immigration bill and healthcare act that could change the life situations for employees
  • Organized protests — like the Women’s march or the Day without Immigrants work stoppage that could keep your employees away from work

Tip #2: Understand the impact. The new administration has made proposals that could change how work is done and how businesses compete. Some of the business impacts are obvious — such as a risk of your agency being de-funded or negative impact from a revised trade agreement or changes to environmental regulations. Sometimes there are also less predictable, unintended consequences. For example, at a recent conference, I spoke with attendees who came from Canada and the UK for the conference and had significant delays getting through customs due to the tightening around visas and travel. As a result, they missed flights, meetings and conference sessions.

Tip #3: Set a plan. If you are aware of current events, it gives you the opportunity to do some proactive planning. Some of this planning might happen at a company-level for larger organizations. For example, this article in the Atlantic details how several different restaurants responded to employee issues related to the February “Day without Immigrants” work stoppage. The restaurants had to deal with employees who asked for time off or did not show up or who wanted to protest at work. Each restaurant took a different approach — they crafted a plan that fit with their needs and values.

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If you know a big event is coming (like a rally or work stoppage), inquire to see if your company has plans and talking points for how to handle situations such as: employees who don’t show up for shifts, how to speak to the media, how to run the business short-staffed, etc. If your company does not provide guidance, you should use your own judgment to come up with a fair and consistent response — try to plan proactively and not in the heat of the moment. If you feel a need to document some more formal plans, there are legal and compliance sites that can provide guidance. Putting “political anxiety in the workplace” into Google returns a bunch of legal and compliance sites that cover topics like writing policies, disciplinary procedures and formal complaint processes.

Tip #4: Recognize individual struggles. Many of the proposed changes are inherently personal.

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Employees with pre-existing conditions (for themselves or for family members) might be anxious and stressed about losing healthcare options. Other employees might have relatives who are facing deportation or who fear extra scrutiny. Visa-holding employees might be unable to leave the US to visit their families for fear that they won’t be able to get back into the country. In the past few months, our country has seen wild swings in these areas — with executive orders being passed and being challenged by the courts. Every swing causes a chain reaction of activities that create worry and stress for individuals and their families. That personal strain will sometimes spill over into the workplace through distraction or short tempers. You might see performance start to decline from previously strong employees — consider that the decline might be partially due to anxiety and stress. As a manager, you still have a responsibility to address the performance decline — but approach the conversation with an open mind. Listen for cues that there might be anxiety about life circumstances causing the performance change. If that is the case, you might be able to make some changes to relieve pressure on the employee.

However, consider one truism of good management — do not get too deeply involved in the life drama of your employees. Managers should be performance coaches — not counselors. Your role is to be fair and consistent and to stay objective. As a leader, you cannot and should not solve personal issues for your employees — respect their ability to take care of themselves. However, you might be able to provide reasonable help such as allowing an afternoon off to deal with personal business (like a legal or medical appointment).

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Sometimes employees are so distraught or upset that they cause a problem or disruption in the workplace. Or they seem to need more help than you can or should give with personal issues. In these cases, you need to point the employee to other resources and keep the workplace productive for everyone else. If available, you can point the employee to your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which generally offers 3–5 free counseling sessions and can often provide emergency care if needed. Your HR department can help you understand your benefits. If that is not available, you can suggest that the employee reach out to religious support groups or free and low cost counseling services.

Tip #5: Keep focused. Remember your duty is to run the business. As a leader, you have responsibility for driving results and for leading your team. Your goal should be to keep everyone focused on the work — instead of political and personal drama — as much as possible. To do that, you should consider creating a politics-free zone at work, so employees don’t get into heated discussions or feel singled out. Work can actually provide a refuge from politics and help employees find balance during stressful times. Strive to make your workplace a safe, productive and inclusive environment.

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Unfortunately there are no simple formulas for navigating the anxiety caused by current events. It will depend a lot on your company, your employees and their personal circumstances. By being aware and alert for trouble, you might be able to defuse situations before they get complicated. You’ll have to step up and use good managerial judgment to assess and solve ambiguous and difficult issues — which is one of the most important parts of your role as a leader.

Consider the earlier scenario. How would you deal with it? You could step into the break room, remind Kien and Michael about work being a politics-free zone and gently ask them to get back to work. Schedule some time to speak with Maria to follow up on her performance decline and help her get back on track. And check out the policy on employees being absent due to a rally. Stay focused, find a balance and keep moving forward.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on May 17, 2017.

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