When Bad Things Happen, What Do You Tell Your Team?

Whether you manage one person or several hundred, you’ll be confronted with the issue of what to tell employees when things go awry, writes Ellen de Graffenreid.

July 20, 2017
 
 
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Let’s be honest, it is a tough time to be in higher education administration. Questions about higher education’s value proposition, activist legislatures, protesting students, budget cuts, free speech, compliance issues, pressure to ensure access, pressure to ensure quality -- all these issues can challenge leadership, complicate decision making and make seemingly straightforward jobs a pressure cooker of political navigation and resource constraints.

The Aspen Institute’s Task Force on the Future of the College Presidency notes that the pool of people who want to take on leadership positions, and are prepared to do so, is shrinking. One of the reasons may be that many people can’t imagine living in what feels like permanent crisis-management mode. Just last week I was talking to an administrator at a major public university who said, “It’s been a pretty good year,” and went on to explain that the institution “only” faced three major public crises.

Such environmental pressures -- whether alone or combined with leadership missteps, lack of institutional accountability or an escalation of campus politics into the national media -- mean that whether you supervise one employee or several hundred, you are going to be confronted with the issue of what to tell the people you manage and work with when something goes wrong. As someone who has experienced a rather disproportionate share of issues, I can share some principles that may help you answer that question for your team or campus community.

First, determine whether the issues are really that bad. Do they truly constitute an institutional crisis? What would need to happen to escalate an issue to crisis level? When we overreact as leaders, the resulting level of organizational stress can cause long-term damage to teamwork, motivation and accountability. My time working in academic medicine has taught me that many situations may be problematic, and some will make you smack your head in disbelief, but the vast majority are not life threatening. Think about the spectrum of risk, and help your team put “things are really bad” into context.

It can be hard on our colleagues to read about or listen to an institution they love being dragged through the figurative mud by the news media or other stakeholders. And it can also be hard on you, as their manager, to determine how best to help them cope. When you are leading a team and allow endless venting of hurt feelings and drama, it can take the focus off the work and keep your team from getting the job done. At the same time, when you don’t listen to people as they express their emotions, or dismiss their concerns about a situation, you can be perceived as unfeeling and cold. Neither are great options.

Try practicing reflective listening (“What I hear you saying is that this situation makes you feel …”), help people stay in the present (“That is one potential outcome, but it’s a long way down the road”) and focus on fundamentals (“What is really important is that we serve our students well during this time”).

Second, think about your relationship with your team. Throughout my career, I have tried to protect the people who report to me from upper-level leadership that included the well-intentioned but inept and the fundamentally toxic. I quickly learned that it is simply not possible to shield people entirely. Being dishonest about the causes and consequences of decisions would have caused me to lose all credibility with those on whom I needed to depend every day. Yet being honest about the nitty-gritty details of the human failings that created unfortunate situations would have been both fundamentally unfair to the leaders in question and unprofessional.

In deciding how much to tell your team to preserve your relationship without saying too much, be aware that you probably do not have all of the information that went into decision making. Try to stick to the facts that are publicly known about the issue or crisis and to contextualize your remarks with any structural limitations (for example, compliance issues) that apply. This middle ground is a precarious place to walk, and some of your team may be frustrated that you can’t or won’t respond to gossip, speculate on what is going to happen, or “take their side” on a complex issue. To the extent that you can step back and provide a larger framework for decision making in terms of institutional strategy or priorities, it can help. When you can acknowledge people’s feelings or the apparent unfairness of a situation, do so. People need to be heard.

Don’t speculate. Everyone assumes that the person a level above them in administration knows something they don’t and will ask you to speculate or to confirm a rumor. The vast majority of the time, you can’t share what you know, and speculation about an issue -- even if couched in uncertainty -- may cause you to inadvertently share information that you are obligated to keep confidential.

The rest of the time, you shouldn’t share because you don’t know enough. When I give colleagues media training, I always advise them not to answer hypothetical questions. Speculation is the internal communications equivalent of answering the hypothetical interview question and is likely to be translated in the retelling as a stated fact. If you work on a campus without a well-developed rumor mill, I would like to hear about it, but it is generally a good idea to try not to contribute.

Remember that your personal feelings are truly personal. That can be really hard when things on the campus are difficult, but I have learned that it’s best to share them my dog, spouse or another trusted confidant who is not in the middle of the situation. If you have a very strong relationship with professional peers at your level in the institution, there may be times when you can have -- as the cliché goes -- an open and honest exchange of views. Preferably somewhere off campus. Sharing personal views may make you feel better, but it can unfairly burden your direct reports or peers. No matter how strongly you may believe in transparency, in most situations, it’s not about you (or me).

Finally, if your team is tasked with things that are directly related to a really bad situation, thank them. The people who stayed up all night monitoring social media, who turned around a budget revision in two days or who went out of their way to do the right thing are generally those who are competent, dedicated and professional. If your peer is having a tough time, buy them a coffee, bring them flowers or just acknowledge that they’re in the middle of a difficult situation. Whatever you can do to thank them or ensure they are recognized will be appreciated and remembered.

Bio

Ellen de Graffenreid is director of communications at Duke University’s Margolis Center for Health Policy.

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