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Leading Amidst Fear

I had not seen the crippling effects of group fear until December 2, 2015, when a husband and wife entered the Inland Regional Center (IRC) at 10:58 am in San Bernardino, California and opened fire on their colleagues during an office Christmas party. In the aftermath, 14 were killed (including both of the attackers) and 22 were seriously injured.

Our organization is less than three miles away from the IRC and the news traveled with speed and vengeance. It started with the wife of a police officer receiving a call from her husband letting her know what was happening just minutes away from where she sat. The resulting social media frenzy warped at an astonishing rate into speculations that there were multiple groups of shooters and some were either already on our campus firing shots or were heading our way to do further damage.

I first heard of the attack while in a meeting. I texted with my administrative team and told them I would contact our security and keep the office apprised. I spoke with security, got the update, and texted it to my team. I didn’t leave my meeting, or the next two, but texted back and forth as developments unfolded. In my mind things were under control, but if I had seen what was going on in my office I would have cancelled all meetings for the rest of the day to work on counteracting the monstrous fear that was taking hold. When I did finally go back to my office the fear had grown into an unmanageable monster and I spent the rest of the day and into the next week repairing and trying to work through the anger and frustration that comes from unrestrained group fear. As the leader, I could have prevented some, if not most, of the negative repercussions, by doing at least five things:

  • Be Physically Present - Being physically present gives a sense of security and stability. Cancel meetings, keep your door open, walk around, and let them see your face.

  • Over communicate - Messages of fear spread rapidly and don’t require much prompting to do so. You must get out in front of speculation and “what-if” talk so there is a message of reason with which to compare the fear messages against. Start communication early, keep it up, and don’t stop. Even if it is to say that a solution is still being worked on you must communicate something. Your followers need to see action and willingness to keep them in the loop.

  • Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. - Even if you feel you’ve adequately shared a point, share it again. And again. Fear messaging pushes the mind into a “spin” and logic tends to jump out the window of a 40-story building when fear takes hold. Keep repeating the messaging in different ways, even if it hasn’t changed.

  • Invite Participation - If your followers feel heard the fear is held somewhat in check. Hold open conversations to talk through solutions and invite thoughts of those who will be affected by decisions.

Today I’m seeing a similar situation. Fear of COVID-19 circles our globe. Every news network has the latest update of worsening stats and images fly around social media to play on fears of whether this is “the one” that will wipe out large populations. Toilet paper, water, and antiseptic wipes are scarce and logic is following the same extinction path. Regardless of whether this virus reaches the projected level of devastation, the fear is real and authentic leaders who are “with” their team are needed more than ever.

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