One of my clients (let’s call her Tammy) recently reached out to me for advice. I have been working with Tammy and her team to roll out our Department Culture Change Initiative. The intent of this initiative is to shift cultures from unsupportive, unprofessional, and disrespectful to professional, caring, and respectful. Although a bit rocky at first, it’s been amazing to see how the staff and Tammy have grown. Employees are engaging in honest conversations with each other and coming together as a team by making decisions based on what’s best for patients first, then each other as coworkers, and themselves last. However, I’ve been most impressed with how Tammy has grown as a leader. So, I wasn’t surprised to get a random call from her.
I knew something was wrong when I heard her voice.
Tammy sounded anxious and upset. She told me that although her hospital was inundated with COVID-19 patients, she and her team felt well prepared. They were “on it”! However, something unexpected occurred that devastated them.
One of her employees died suddenly and unexpectedly from the virus. She wasn’t feeling well, went home early, and then just a few days later, Tammy got the call that she had died.
Tammy then had to tell her team the horrible news.
Many of her staff were overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, extreme sorrow, anger, and anxiety over what had occurred. They felt prepared to handle the virus but not prepared to have the virus take one of their own.
Tammy didn’t know how to help her team cope with their feelings while still maintaining a “we got this” attitude. She knew she needed to be strong for her team but was dealing with her own feelings of sorrow, anxiety, and anger. What should she do to help them get through this?
How to help your team overcome unexpected tragedy
While I’m not a therapist, I do understand human behavior. When something tragic occurs, many human beings will obsessively think about the stressful event. They may ruminate over possible scenarios (what if I would have ____), experience labile emotions, and spend time worrying about a negative future. All of these responses are huge distractors to patient care. It’s really hard to concentrate when you’re constantly thinking about a tragic event.
When dealing with unexpected tragedy:
I suggested that Tammy gather with her team to address what happened. They need to talk about what happened – not ignore it. She needed to encourage people to verbalize their feelings as a way to release some of their fears and anxieties.
Reassure your people
Let them know that what they’re feeling (guilt, anger, sorrow, etc.) is NORMAL. That it’s okay to feel whatever they are feeling and not to necessarily fight it or bury their feelings, but rather to recognize them – give names to them so that they can deal with those feelings.
Give them permission
Strong, courageous healthcare professionals at times don’t think they should show emotion or vulnerability. After all, this is “what we do”. When in a crisis situation like an unexpected death of a patient or colleague, give them PERMISSION to be sad, to cry, to be angry.
You may have heard of “the pause” used after a patient dies. It’s an opportunity for the healthcare team to take a moment to collectively honor someone before they go back to their work.
Let them talk
When feelings aren’t expressed, they can sometimes get so repressed that they are released in very destructive ways. Give them a safe place to talk. Doing so can feel very cathartic and help to alleviate negative feelings.
What Tammy was really worried about
After we discussed practical ways to help her employees, Tammy then shared what was really bothering her. She told me that when telling her team what happened, she broke down and cried.
“Was that wrong?” she asked. “Was it wrong to let my staff see me cry?”
She was so worried that by crying with her staff, they would see her as weak. She was worried that she would lose credibility with them. I then reassured her that not only did she NOT lose credibility – what she did by crying was show that she cared for her team. She showed her compassion and empathy.
I told her, “It’s okay to cry with your team. It shows that you’re human and that you care.”
Now, there is a difference between allowing your team to see you cry in situations like this and crying about every day minor challenges (or doing the ‘ugly cry’).
The key is what you do after crying
Showing emotion can increase connectedness with your team by showing your vulnerability. However, what’s important is what comes next.
What NOT to do:
If you break down and cry with your team, the worst thing you can do is to run out of the room. Doing so will only INCREASE their anxieties and fears.
What TO do:
What you need to do is reassure them that they will get through this situation – together.
“This is hard – harder than we could have imagined. However, we’re going to get through this together.
There is a difference between managing a team and leading them. According to leadership expert Michael Hyatt, leaders inspire and motivate – managers maintain and administrate. Leaders stay focused on the horizon, while managers have their eye on short-term goals and objectives.
During this crisis or with any future crisis, in addition to making sure you are administrating – your teams need you to LEAD – to inspire, motivate, reassure. It’s okay to pray, cry, or even say that you don’t have all the answers. Great leaders keep reminding their teams that although difficult, they will all get through any crisis TOGETHER.