Recently, a team led by a Harvard researcher investigated the psychological impact of negative news.
He came to a startling conclusion – just three minutes spent perusing negative news headlines in the morning increased a person’s chances of being in a bad mood six hours later by as much as 27%. Even small doses of bad news have a long-lasting negative impact on our psyche.
These results are particularly troubling given how much bad news we’ve been seeing lately. After more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2022 has brought us war, famine, a series of climate disasters, and political and economic crises.
Coping with this avalanche of bad news is a mental health challenge for each of us. This is a particularly tough challenge for business leaders, given how distracting and depressing bad news has been according to research. How can you deal with your problems and the confusion you face, while at the same time helping your team overcome difficulties and do their jobs the best way possible? How can you find a balance between compassion and achieving business goals?
These aren’t issues that traditional business education can prepare you for, but that doesn’t mean expert help doesn’t exist. A recent Harvard Business Review piece by former Harvard dean-turned-coach Molly West Duffy and Liz Voslien, head of communications at Humu, provides advice on how to be a good leader in difficult times. The material is worth reading in its entirety, but below are the most important takeaways from it:
Start helping before the next tragedy
Your efforts to maintain team spirit in difficult times cannot begin after another horrific headline in the media. You must earn trust before tragedy strikes. “You can’t expect employees to feel safe if you haven’t first made an effort to ensure that the work environment encourages open discussion and the sharing of concerns and desires,” the two wrote.
“If I don’t feel comfortable telling you about these things that I do in my free time or things that are related to my identity, then how am I going to feel comfortable talking to you about anything when the situation is bad?” asks Angelica Lee, a professor who studies diversity in the workplace.
Acknowledge the problems
When it looks like the world is on fire, you might be tempted to try to isolate your team from the flames behind a firewall of silence. Ignoring bad news, however, does not increase productivity. It just makes you look ignorant or uninterested.
“If you say nothing, your team will assume that you either don’t know or don’t care about world events, which will undermine your employees’ trust in you,” the authors of the HBR article warn.
Depending on the size of your team, either gather everyone at one table or send them an email to address the terrible news.
What should you tell them? This depends on both who you are as a person (be authentic) and the nature of the last negative event. But West Duffy and Fosslein offer two guiding principles – “communicate humanly and from the heart” and “provide a way forward”.
Help each employee deal with the situation in their way
When faced with terrible news, some people distract themselves with work. Others turn to trusted friends to process emotions they are experiencing. Still, others feel better after taking some action themselves to contribute to positive change. That’s why it’s important not to dictate to people how to react to unpleasant news, but to give them the necessary space to process it in their way.
Whatever steps you take, you need to let your employees know that you’re behind them and that they can count on you. Make it clear that your door is always open,” the authors advise. “You could say something like, ‘In light of recent events, I want to reiterate that if there’s anything I or the organization can do to help you in the coming days and weeks, please don’t hesitate to let me know,'” she says.
These steps, of course, cannot provide a comprehensive answer to the question of how business leaders should respond to the many challenges we all face. When and how to take a position is a matter that requires a separate material. As you consider your responsibilities, however, don’t overlook basic psychological first aid for your team. Ignoring the bad things in life won’t make them go away. However, acknowledging the reality and offering human support will help.