When tragedy happens

I remember exactly where I was on September 11, 2001.  Like many of you, I was at home preparing for work.  The first phone call told me to turn on the TV to see what was happening.  The second phone call was from a trainer who was facilitating a session for a leadership development program I managed.  He wanted to know what to tell the participants.  Should he stop the program and make an announcement?  Should he continue with business as usual? How could he possibly explain what was going on?

Friday’s events in Connecticut made me think of that event.  As leaders, when national tragedies occur we face not only our own feelings but also those of our staff and colleagues.  Unlike 2011, news now arrives in bits and pieces over social media, and people want to share information, trying to make sense of events.

I found an interesting article at About.com that has several useful suggestions for leaders for dealing with national or local tragedies. The author, Susan Heathfield, included these tips:

  1. First, if the event is happening near you, make sure your people are safe.  It’s a hard conversation, but every workplace should have disaster plans in place. As a leader, it’s important that you help people know what to do before a dangerous event occurs.
  2. Don’t expect business as usual.  Recognize that people will need to talk and will be distracted. It is not the time to stress tasks and deadlines.
  3. Provide information.  If possible, allow people to check the internet or listen to the radio. During the September 11 attacks, we set up a TV in a conference room and allowed people to go in and out during the day to follow news events.
  4. This leads to another useful tip – provide ways for people to gather and talk. The article suggested calling a meeting or having a group lunch in the following days so people can encourage each other.

As leaders in higher education, tragic events in one school affect us all.  In addition, we may face local tragedies in our communities or workplaces. How we handle these events can influence the workplace well into the future. Considering how you might handle them and identifying resources to help you can help you be more prepared when the time comes.

Dee Anne Bonebright


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