We all carry around a certain degree of baggage with us daily. Relationships that went awry, painful life events, and regrets haunt us on the inside, in spite of the smile we show to coworkers and colleagues. The most innocent event can trigger all the old emotions we’ve stuffed deep down and hoped to forget.
Recently, I spoke with a friend who experienced a full anxiety attack at the mere mention of a team meeting to discuss roles/responsibilities. In spite of the leader being very clear that the goal of the meeting was to reduce the extraneous activities that had been piled on this team’s plate during years of downsizing, this team member felt nothing but threatened. I didn’t understand. The words were clear.
“But it sounds like she’s here to help!” I said.
“Yeah right. It’s just another meeting where we have to justify how we spend our time,” he expressed.
“What am I missing? I’m not getting that message from any of the emails I’m reading.” I kept prodding, trying to understand the hidden messages he was reading into the team emails.
Finally, I uncovered the truth. Nearly a decade ago, this team went through significant turmoil. One day he showed up at work and 3 coworkers desks were cleaned out. There was no communication to the team ahead of time. There were no goodbyes. No one even received an explanation for the 3 missing coworkers for 48 hours. That’s a lifetime when you are worried about your friends and your own job stability.
Fast forward to one year later when the team was told there would be additional downsizing and starting tomorrow, everyone will need to re-interview for their jobs. The kind of panic that ensued left wounds. Deep, dark wounds that no one spoke aloud for fear that any emotion or concern would be interpreted as a lack of commitment to the organization’s mission.
Those wounds heal slowly. We’re talking about something that happened a decade ago. A decade! In the past decade, the organization has changed into a completely different animal. None of the leaders involved in those past events are even employed by the organization now. But the effects remain.
A decade later, and one single email re-opened a wound that was so deep the employee sought out the company’s EAP to manage the stress.
The past matters. While today’s leader can’t be held responsible for those traumas incurred in the past, he/she must be mindful of how deeply team members still carry those painful memories. It’s important to discuss them openly and honestly. Encourage communication and reinforce that team members are welcome to express their concerns with you.
New leaders should work to understand the highs and lows the team has experienced in the past. It might be awkward to discuss the skeletons in the organizational closet, but if you don’t understand the concerns looming beneath the surface, you too will be shocked when an email offering help is interpreted as a hint at downsizing.
As a new leader, you aren’t responsible for not being able to change the past. And you can’t guarantee the future. But you can create a culture in which everyone knows they can come to you for reassurance and honest answers.