Lead Your Team Through Crisis: Advice and a Gift from a Former Crisis Counselor

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It feels like a chapter from a Stephen King thriller, doesn’t it?

I don’t think any of us had this in mind as we headed into 2020.  And, here we are.

You may or may not know I was a family therapist and crisis counselor in my previous career.  During my time in that role a small community was shaken to the core by a disgruntled citizen in an creatively armored bulldozer, wildfires that devastated our homes, and workplace and school shootings shook our sense of safety to the core.

Mental health and the capacity for resilience is critical for our survival right now.  The good news? Your ability to acknowledge your own and other’s emotions is a built-in ability most people have.

While an in person, one-on-one strategic brainstorming session isn’t on the table right now, I am offering advice for leaders to support you as you take the most important action you can right now as a leader.

What is the advice?

“Don’t just do something (even if you could). Be there.”  Listen and don’t “fix.”  Empathize.  Acknowledge.  Care. Then find one next step to act on.

Is it really that simple? Yes. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, you already have all you need to support and lead.  Right here. Right now.

Is it easy? No.  It takes practice, but you don’t need to be perfect. Let me share the “Why” so you have context.

First, when we are stressed, fearful or painful we go into “Lizard Brain” – an instinctive “fight, flight or freeze” state.  And by the way, because of “mirror neurons” in our brain, like COVID-19, emotions are highly contagious. 

Next, we naturally seek connection.  When we feel heard and cared about, our brain releases neurotransmitters (aka natural pain killers).  We feel better.  Even for a few moments.  Calm is contagious, too.  Calm helps us solve problems.

Because only from a state of calm and quiet can our thinking brain (our pre-frontal cortex) operate. It’s the part of the brain responsible for focusing attention, making decisions, comparing options, solving problems, deciding between two choices, and remembering. And what we use to find solutions to our current problems. Our thinking brain can’t work when ‘Lizard Brain’ is operating.  It’s an either/or situation.  Being in a state of anxiety, worry and fear is not conducive to problem-solving.

Here are the 5 steps to empathy.  The conversation goes like this:

  1. You (with eye contact and genuineness): “I can see you feel overwhelmed/worried/stressed/scared right now…”
  2. Then … shut up and listen. Yes, silence.  BE THERE. 
  3. Next repeat what you hear, word for word. No judgement, no fixing, no solutions, no argument. 
  4. Finally, shut up and listen, watch for their head nod, a sigh, a “yes” (a sign they feel heard).
  5. You: “What is your first next action step?”

And if there is a problem to be solved, clear next steps and solutions have a funny way of showing up when people feel heard.

Leaders must go first.  Your people always watch you and they will do what you do.  Always. Now more than ever. Simple, yes. Easy, no (especially if people are looking to you for answers you don’t have). 

Here’s the bad news…

As a leader, you too are experiencing incredible stress – the same stress everyone on your team is and more.  You are also experiencing “Power Stress” – a unique type of stress felt by people who are responsible for the well-being of others. 

You can’t lead if you too are overwhelmed, anxious and fearful.

My gift to you is this …

First, because how you show up matters and ripples throughout your entire organization, I am available to schedule a virtual Executive Strategy call with you and your entire Executive Team and share tips, answer questions and serve as a guide as you navigate this crisis. 

Because turning this around must start at the very top – for those who want to take me up on this – the CEO or President must be on the line as well.  These calls will be just for you and your senior team – because we need to be able to talk freely and candidly for you to walk away with the best next steps for you and your organization to take going forward.

And second, if the demand is there, I will organize and lead a few virtual Executive Round Table calls open to leaders across the world and share tips and answer questions. This is not for the Executive teams mentioned above, and it will be open to leaders across many organizations.

Please contact me below in the bio if you believe learning from my experience would be helpful to you as a leader, and to your people…

Whether you take me up on this or not, please stay calm, safe and lead the way forward for your people and your organization.

Be well.  ~Christina Haxton

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