Leading through Social Turmoil with Grace and Compassion

Give your team the time and space to feel and process during these (and future) moments of social turmoil

It’s another remarkably stressful moment of social turmoil in the United States. The United States Supreme Court reversed fifty years of legal precedent and ended the constitutionally protected right to an abortion. The decision returns the authority to make these laws to individual states. At the same time, the US Congress also passed the first gun-control legislation in decades.

Our guess is you’ve got some pretty strong feelings right now one way or the other.

We do too.

We’re deeply concerned about the devastating implications of the reversal of Roe V. Wade for so many reasons. But this article isn’t about that. It’s about leadership and how you can best support your team now, during yet another challenging and emotional time of social turmoil.

Regardless of your personal views on these matters, the decisions create significant social turmoil for many people. First, there is the emotional landscape: many people are feeling grief, anger, horror, or uncertainty, while others feel satisfied, elated, or happy, and some will ignore either topic altogether.

Next, there is the legal landscape: a variety of uneven rules determine available medical care depending on where you live, and the legal impact of the gun control measures will take time to unfold.

Then there are the corporate responses and policies. Many companies like Dick’s Sporting Goods, Microsft, JP Morgan, and Disney have responded to the Supreme Court ruling with policies to reimburse travel expenses for employees living in restricted areas that travel to where care is available.  Patagonia has taken it a step further and is offering to pay bail for employees arrested protesting the Supreme Court decision.

It is a tumultuous environment that will certainly continue to change.

Leading with Compassion

Regardless of the source of turmoil, it’s smart to be ready for distracted, energized, frustrated, hopeful, distraught, elated, concerned, confused, uncertain, joyful, worried, (as well as unconcerned) hearts and minds.

Compassion recognizes the very real challenges these events pose for your team members. Trying to ignore them or “leave it outside of work” doesn’t work.

Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we were conducting a leadership development workshop with a group of global managers. Within a few minutes, we knew that they weren’t themselves. We’d started the session by acknowledging what was happening, but it wasn’t enough. People were hurting.

We had to stop the session and create more space to find out how people were feeling. Some were concerned for team members or family in Ukraine, others were angry or sad, or feeling powerless. For others, the conflict was a distant concern.

Be ready—your team may or may not struggle with this upheaval, but there will be others.

4 Ways to Lead Through Social Turmoil

As we’ve worked with leaders who’ve successfully led their teams through the emotional turmoil of the past several years, we’ve seen four consistent behaviors. What would you add?

1. Communicate expectations of respect and inclusion now.

Don’t wait for disruptions or stress before you reinforce a culture of respect and inclusion. Building a culture of respect and inclusion will allow you to work through moments of social turmoil.

One client shared, “These are diversity and inclusion issues, and we need to treat our communication with that level of sensitivity. We can’t assume we know where people are coming from or what they might be thinking.”

Despite what the internet’s comment sections might suggest, it is possible for people who hold very different perspectives to work together, treating one another with dignity and respect. But it won’t happen without intentional effort, commitment to those values, and equipping team members with the ability to disagree respectfully.

2. Support your managers with listening tools and skills.

One executive told us how he prepares his managers for these moments:

“It can be really hard to hear some of the views coming from your team. Particularly if the views feel extreme or misguided from your perspective. Resist the urge to educate, argue, or share your views. Instead, your job is to create a safe place for people to process if necessary, without chiming in with your own views.”

During times like this, one of the best approaches is to reflect to connect. It helps to remember that every person’s point of view is valid to them. Encourage your managers to reflect back and communicate what they are hearing.

For example: “It sounds like you are really frustrated” or “It seems like you’re really happy about this.”

These neutral statements don’t mean you agree. They do help the other person feel seen so you can move forward.

3. Create space.

While some team members may welcome a return to work as a way to escape upheaval, others may be off their game and need room to process.

Just after the school shooting in Uvalde, we were working with a group of leaders in Texas. Their leader wisely used the first hour of the session to create space to talk, process feelings, and connect with one another.

One tech executive we spoke with approached the last US Presidential election by creating space. He knew he had divergent views on the team. “I’ve already instructed my team to cancel all meetings for that week. People will need time to process, and we need to create that space.”

Even if canceling all meetings feels extreme, encouraging more white space on the calendar that week should help your managers have time to connect with their teams. And, if possible, avoid making emotionally laden decisions while everyone’s already coming from a place of extreme joy or frustration.

Creating some extra space for one-on-one meetings can also be helpful to give people a moment to process in a safe place.

4. Reconnect to the good you do.

After giving people space to feel, connect, and process, one of the best ways to help your team move forward together is to refocus on the work you do that makes the world better.

Who do you help? How is their life improved by the work you do?

Call everyone back to that mutual purpose—it is the reason your team exists, and it can re-empower team members who feel adrift.

Your Turn

There are no easy answers to these moments of significant change. We live in a time where the internet amplifies every change and emotions run unfiltered through keyboards and into our pockets.

In these times of turmoil and upheaval, your team needs your leadership.