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Managing Interpersonal Dynamics When Crisis Hits

How are you doing? I mean, how are you reeeeeally doing? Have you been noticing that you're edgy, short-fused, overreacting, or weepy? How about moody, emotionally inconsistent, or even weirdly disconnected and unaffected? Does any of it seem strangely out of place in the moment? How about your team? Are you noticing any obvious changes in their reactions? If so, in the middle of the COVID Crisis, there's a very good chance that you're dealing with acute anxiety and triggered trauma responses.


Right now, things are increasingly tense. We're isolating, feeling trapped, worried about our loved one's health as well as our own, freaking out about our financial stability, and wondering how essential we will be, professionally, long-term. How could we *not* be triggered by all of this? If any of this sounds familiar, I promise that you're normal. The unknowns, the restrictions, the potential for major devastation- all of it- is a perfect storm for our triggers to be tripped.


We have instinctual behaviors that we lean into when crisis hits. It's your natural tendency and if you look back on your reactions under extreme stress and crisis in the past, you can probably see your pattern. Do you tend to act or freeze? Fight or Flight? Yell or get tongue-tied? We tend to fall into two groups when crisis hits: Over-functioners and Under-functioners. Neither is good or bad, right or wrong. But, both can have negative effects, if we're not in control of ourselves or managing our boundaries. If we go headlong into either, we can find ourselves losing control and drowning in anxiety or depression, which is often acute but can become chronic.


Over-functioners tend to snap into 5th gear when crisis hits. They are adrenaline junkies and can pivot quickly to be of great value when many people are stuck in shock. They tend to run in a high gear that can often flip into a mania, which keeps them from sleeping or taking a break, creating the potential for an anxiety attack and eventual burn out. Their optimism, creativity, boundless energy and willingness to work and lead during these times of stress is incredibly valuable, but the risk of harsh judgment, emotional outbursts, a tendency toward control/taking over, and eventually a physical and emotional crash, makes it critical to keep an eye on them. Placing boundaries and limits on them is necessary to keep them from running headlong into the burning building, and you potentially losing out on an incredible asset during the crisis period. You will need to draw a strong line in the sand, even though they are one of your greatest partners, during crisis. Do it, or lose 'em... trust me on this. I'm one of them.


Here are some signs of Overfunctioning:

- Assuming more responsibility than is reasonably yours

- Advise-giving, even when not requested

- Doing things for others that they are capable of doing for themselves

- Worrying about other people

- Feeling responsible for others, knowing what is best for them

- Talking more than listening

- Having goals for others that you don't have for yourself



The other instinctual reaction to crisis that we see in people is Under-funtioners. Underfunctioning is often seen as the "flight" or "freeze" reaction to stress. These people run from stress and look for the helpers to create safety or consistency. Their brains freeze and they often become tongue-tied and incapable of a response in the moment. While there is great value in people who are listeners or watchers, the concern is that they have an inability to take decisive action in the middle of the crisis, so their skill to listen and watch actually becomes their prison. They become worriers and will often feel helpless and become frozen or paralyzed. The problem with this reaction is that, as their fear grows, they feel more and more helpless. Their anxiety takes over and they often over-inflate the crisis and under-value their ability to control their life. The under-functioners are at risk of isolating and becoming acutely depressed if left to their patterns, in crisis. As leaders, our job is to remind them of their value and create guard rails of safety and security, through regular check-ins and conversation, and a bit of hand-holding, as necessary. The name of the game is patience and flexibility, here. They have value to add and our job is to keep the turtle from retreating into its shell.


Signs of Underfunctioning:

- Assuming less responsibility than is reasonably yours

- Asking for advice, instead of thinking things through independently

- Getting others to help when help isn't really needed

- Hiding/ isolating

- Listening more than talking

- Floating with no goals or direction

- Not following through


To add to the challenge of leading others through crisis, we have to acknowledge that you- the leader- will have your own instinctual response. So, while we are talking about how to manage employees, we also have to be emotionally intelligent enough to tap into our own Self-Awareness and give ourselves an honest assessment. You will need to be able to take a clear and honest inventory of your own responses so that you can be effective for the team of people that you're leading. Do you have a confidant that you can share this information with? Is there someone in your professional circle that you can be this vulnerable with? I recommend that you have regular check-ins to make sure that your are working within your own guard rails. We don't want you going into mania/anxiety/burn out/depression either, right? Personal accountability is going to be key, as you manage your way through this.


As quickly as this crisis hit, it will eventually be a distinct marker in time, in our rearview mirror. But, in the immediate, as we are navigating through this chaos and disruption, I want you to step into a consistent and solid position to lead your team to the best possible outcome. This will take a strong amount of social-awareness to keep your employee's well-being top of mind, and a strong amount of self-awareness, to make sure that you are functioning effectively and strategically, with a strong understanding of interpersonal dynamics in the middle of trauma.


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