Managering in Terrible Times
These are terrible times. You may be facing these events head-on as a member of a marginalized group or as an ally, and if you’re a manager, you likely have direct reports who are doing the same.
Put your own oxygen mask on first and read Productivity in Terrible Times. Then follow these guidelines for supporting your team.
Note: I’ve added a few more tips in this follow-up post to address concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As managers, one of our responsibilities is to provide the safest workplace we can to those around us. This includes members of marginalized groups who are dealing with a rapidly worsening environment, folks who may be anticipating legal challenges, and people with families who are uncertain about their ability to keep their jobs and stay safe in their communities. How do we support our reports in this rapidly changing political environment?
What follows is my perspective as a cis white woman in tech, so your mileage may vary. I recognize the privilege I have in being able to safely write about this, and the privilege that few of the new changes with this administration have directly affected me (so far). So I hope this blog post is a helpful starting point for folks, but am happy to continue this conversation and discuss best practices in different contexts.
There are two primary ways we can support our direct reports: proactively, by creating a supportive and safe environment, and reactively, responding to individual crises.
Creating a supportive and safe environment
As I talk about creating a safe space at work, my overarching theme is clarity. With our brains on overdrive trying to make sense of what’s happening outside, it’s harder than ever to parse information. The easier and clearer you can make processes like taking time off, or how the company can support individuals, or your expectations of their work, the easier the load will be for those affected.
This is a group effort. Your company likely has formal support mechanisms for all employees. Figure out what these things are.
- Does your organization provide transgender-inclusive health benefits?
- How about coverage for therapy, or self-defense classes?
- Does your organization’s bereavement leave policy explicitly apply to the constant trauma of Black death and racial violence?
- Who should people talk to if they have questions about coverage?
- What is the process is for moving, or for working remotely?
- Does your organization do donation-matching?
- Can your company provide a space to hold protest sign-making workshops or materials?
- Has your CEO said something publicly about recent events, particularly something that makes it clear how the company will support its employees?
These are examples of things that can help employees know that the company as a whole (not just their manager) aims to support them, and hopefully keep them safe.
Communicate clearly to your direct reports about the ways that you are eager to support them:
- Researching all the above “formal support” questions, and documenting and sharing the answers/procedures with them (and keeping those answers updated and shareable with others)
- Demonstrating/naming that it’s okay to take a day off for mental health reasons, for visiting a doctor, or for generally taking care of what they need to
- Giving space in one-on-ones to talk about how they’re feeling, or about how to manage feelings of unproductivity (and that it’s safe to do so with you)
As you delegate work or articulate deadlines, make it incredibly clear what’s expected of folks. Take care to not give any individual a confusing piece of work, or fuzzy expectations. Give them the gift of clarity, so they can also communicate with you about whether or not they can accomplish the work they’ve been assigned.
Support in 1:1s
As a manager, you’re in a position of both power and familiarity. Because of your experience with your reports, you are able to notice behavior that is out of character. However, because of your position of authority, your reports may feel unsafe and burdened by talking with you about what is happening in a 1:1. Don’t create an extra burden on folks by springing the topic on them.
Instead, here’s what I recommend saying, in order:
- As an aside, I wanted to check in and see if there’s anything else I could do to support you right now.
- There’s a bunch of stuff in the news right now on X Topic (where X is changes to ACA, or revoking visas for immigrants, or reproductive rights, etc.). I wanted to make sure that you know that it’s okay for us to talk about this stuff in one-on-ones.
- And, I want you to know that it’s also okay not to talk about this stuff with me.
- As your manager, I want to make sure I’m supporting you as best I can. Is there anything that would be helpful to you to chat about?
Or something else to make it SUPER EASY for your direct report to say “no thanks” and move on. The burden shouldn’t be on them to have an awkward conversation with you that they’re unprepared or uninterested in having.
Remember: marginalized folks are repeatedly called on to explain These Terrible Times to others, and this is a way in which well-intentioned people exacerbate the burden on already-oppressed people. Some members of marginalized groups may see what’s going on as a continuation of structural discrimination, and not as a massive system shock. They are not new to this conversation, and they have likely been having it with people like us (white people) for many years before today.
Responding to individual needs
Yes, we have jobs to do. Yes, it’s part of your job to help make sure work is getting done. Continue to help your reports find that balance.
If you’re following the steps outlined above (clearly setting expectations, and outlining company support as well as your support in 1:1s), you’re well on your way to having transparent conversations with your direct reports about their impacted productivity. If you need to acknowledge a dip in productivity, focus on observable, measurable things: X feature has to ship by Y deadline.
Be patient with decreased productivity
Partner with your direct report to both find a solution and support them in staying healthy. Ask them:
- How else could we meet this goal?
- What can I do to help you meet this goal?
- What would the impact be of moving this goal?
If you’re a manager of managers, make it clear how you want folks to handle the decrease in productivity. This is especially necessary when managers may not be up to speed on the reasons why their reports are feeling a certain way. Some years ago, when many women in tech (myself included) were experiencing decreased productivity as we watched the events of GamerGate unfold, I helped my CTO write an email to managers, which gave them all:
- a shared context (especially if they had no idea what was happening)
- an understanding of how this news might be affecting folks, even if in indirect ways
- the reminder that people might not want to talk about it, and it’s our obligation to provide a safe space in either case.
If your report is directly affected
Meaning: if their visa is revoked, or their parents can no longer come and visit them this summer due to the travel ban. If they were discriminated against in a shop. If they were followed home, or taunted, or threatened. In just the last few months, plenty of very real things have happened to my coworkers, and I have learned a lot about how to more helpfully respond and support them.
A natural instinct that we have is to express deep concern, or deep sympathy, to someone who’s been through a horrible thing. Though the impact pales in comparison to what’s happening right now to marginalized groups, when I was divorced a few years ago, I remember acquaintances reacting with such emotion that I had to console them. I recall thinking, “Wait, why am I spending so much energy needing to reassure this person? Isn’t it me who’s going through this bad thing?”
If your direct report shares A Tough Thing with you that happened to them, do not respond in a way that requires them to reassure you. Sentiments like “it makes me feel sick to my stomach hearing what happened to you” or “it makes me so sad that you’re having to go through this” refocuses the sympathy on you, inappropriately. Lean on your support network outside of work to talk through how you’re feeling about what happened; do not put more hardship onto your direct report. They’ve got enough to think about.
Instead, acknowledge that you feel for them, and refocus on how you can support them. If it’s obvious, suggest the ways in which you or the company can support them - “Would it be helpful to take the afternoon off?” or “Would it be helpful to talk through it more?”. If it’s not obvious, ask them how you can best support them.
Lastly, you may not be at risk of the same kinds of threats as your direct reports. If someone says they feel threatened, believe them. Marginalized people already experience gaslighting from outside sources; please don’t gaslight them in the workplace.
This is going to get harder before it gets easier. “It’ll be okay” is no longer an acceptable response. My hope is that in our role as managers, we can co-create systems within our teams and our companies that, at least in part, help support each other.
Many thanks to Michelle O’Brien who turned Webb’s post into a handout, and helped significantly to edit this management post.
In case it’s helpful, here are all my posts about how to lead through crises.