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Q&A: What Companies Can Do in Traumatic Times


One of Rudolf Giuliani's deputies recently reported that, even as the mayor and his team were escaping from the collapsing World Trade Center, Giuliani operated with "an instinctual emotional attachment" to those around him. New York's mayor has earned high praise for his cool-headed handling of the disaster, but it has been his emotional dimension--his empathy for the fallen, his sense of humor in the midst of calamity--that has elevated him to heroic status.

There is a lesson here for managers, says Peggy Klaus, head of an eponymous Berkeley (Calif.) firm that consults for the likes of JP Morgan Chase (JPM), Cisco Systems (CSCO), and Levi Strauss. In advising these blue chips on everything from presentation skills to crisis management, Klaus emphasizes that the best leaders tap into their own emotions to connect with their staff. She recently spoke with Industries Editor Adam Aston about what managers can expect in the wake of the attack.

Q: How are workers reacting to this tragedy?

A: In the near term, people are likely to be less motivated. A senior investment banker e-mailed me the other day, saying, "I won't have the same motivation I had before the disaster for some time to come." And in general, people are feeling incredibly vulnerable. Many will want to hunker down--to stay home and work--and few will want to travel. There's also survivor's remorse. One associate said she feels guilty--sad and depressed--even though she didn't know any of the victims.

Q: How can a manager handle such an unprecedented situation?

A: Well, many people are feeling the need to talk more, and you can help with this. One investment banker said that on Monday and Tuesday, when the markets reopened, he spent the entire day talking with his team. He felt it was the most important thing he could do.

The key is to be both flexible and sensitive. I heard about a conference call that Monday. One executive said, "We have to move on. We can't let this incident bring us to a halt." Of course, several other participants were very distressed. They said, "Wait a minute. This is not something that will go away."

As a supervisor, you have to be able to deal with both sorts of people. You can tell the first to have patience. And to those who are overwrought, you might suggest taking some personal time. Co-workers must learn to be adaptable, too. They have to take into consideration the way others feel--and that can be a challenge with a very aggressive staff. People are having plenty of physical difficulties--stress and insomnia. I'm suggesting meditation and exercise.

Q: Do men and women deal with crises differently?

A: Yes. Another Wall Street executive observed that the men in her group don't want to talk through their emotions. They want to move on. So as a way to check in with them, instead she asks, "How are your wife and children?" That lets them speak about those they love and eventually leads back to themselves. Let your team know that you're really available to talk. And when workers come in to do so, you should be good a listener. You don't need to be a therapist--simply listen or offer advice about where to seek help. It's important to ask questions, and to be nonjudgmental.

Q: Managers may need help, too....

A: Yes. It's typical for managers to put their own needs, and the grieving process, aside for the moment. But in seriously affected companies, managers need to reach out to professionals to help their teams cope, as well as themselves. It may be group therapy meetings, or a one-to-one hotline with therapists.

Q: What if workers are reluctant to come to work or to travel?

A: Certainly those who saw the disaster may not want to come back. A client who watched the plane hit the World Trade Center from her apartment can barely let her daughter out of her sight. So she's working at home three days a week. And as people become more comfortable in time, schedules can be adjusted. It's the same with travel. You can't penalize those who don't want to travel. Minimize travel for now: Use the phone, e-mail, and videoconferencing.

Q: How can employers help prevent discrimination against Arab Americans?

A: A zero-tolerance policy should be clearly stated--and reiterated--from the top. Let everyone know there will be immediate repercussions if that rule is breached. It is human nature to be angry, and to want revenge, but we must remember that racist responses are simply not acceptable. Also, there are complex issues here that many Americans aren't familiar with. So information and discussions about racism, the Middle East, Islam, and the roots of this conflict will help folks sort out their anger.

Q: Are there any long-term implications from such a incident?

A: It will be a mixed bag. Most people simply want to get back to work--to be surrounded by routine and by people and things they know and like. And because people are insecure about the economy, I don't think we'll see a jump in turnover. A smaller group has been so shaken by this event that they are thinking--some for the first time--about what's truly important to them. A contact recently related his thoughts on how he has been leading his life: too much work, not enough time with family and friends. He's thinking about getting off the fast track.

Q: What advice do you offer to managers who, amid an already grim national crisis, are forced to consider layoffs?

A: In these times, I've found that executives tend to resort to giving just the facts about a situation. This makes their message empty of any compassion. The biggest mistake is to not take their own emotional temperature or consider what their audience--workers, shareholders, the public--is thinking, feeling, and fearing. So put together a message that has both heart and all the facts, and acknowledge that this is one of the most difficult things you'll ever do. That's how you build a bridge with your audience.


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