Let’s face it: 2020 has been a kick in the pants. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in novel challenges for everyone. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others have shone a light on racial injustice in our society. We’re left pondering what’s next.
For many organizations and HR professionals, the events of 2020 have raised awareness of the importance of effective people management. Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) research reveals that as of June 30, nearly 3 out of every 10 employers had implemented layoffs or furloughs. And in three-quarters of those same organizations surveyed, HR is working more intently on programs to assist in the eradication of racism.
HR directors and managers are living through the proverbial perfect storm and barely riding it out. With that in mind, I asked 15 people leaders I trust what they’re doing to cope with the seemingly unmanageable. They shared the following observations and tips.
Embrace depersonalization. Many of us in HR are experiencing or at risk of professional burnout. Researcher Christina Maslach identified depersonalization as one of the characteristics of burnout. The professional in a high-stress situation who expresses depersonalization no longer acknowledges another’s personhood. (The classic example is the nurse who refers to a patient as “the kidney infection,” as opposed to “the patient with a kidney infection.”) But perhaps we shouldn’t assume that depersonalization always indicates burnout; many HR leaders think depersonalization may be a valid tool for professionals as they cope with the pandemic—a scenario unlike any other in memory.
Protect your psyche. Leaders often strive to build up defense mechanisms against attacks. Tolerating barbs that come your way isn’t easy, but perhaps it’s better to catch those digs rather than return them. That’s the advice I got from a colleague who recently managed nearly 8,000 furloughs. She accepts the barbs thrown at her to help others offload their pain.
Share vulnerabilities. In the face of multiple crises, it can be liberating to recognize the power of the unknown. A colleague in the hard-hit cruise industry has honed the ability to artfully say, “I don’t know.” He admits that it’s difficult for him to do, because he has always preferred to respond to questions with facts and directions, but it’s often true. It’s hard work to save an organization and make changes that affect people’s lives, and there are a lot of unknowns. HR professionals may need to build a repertoire of effective and timely “I don’t know” phrases. It should never be the pat answer, but it will help build credibility and even disarm adversaries.
Build something out of chaos. The most intriguing strategy shared by several leaders was to find a way to build something new out of constant upheaval. Focus on the potential opportunity to be found within the chaos. I’m not referring to programs about resilience or sustainability. I’m talking about new business lines or skills-development initiatives or outplacement capabilities—things you’ve never thought of or done before.
When I talked to HR leaders about coping with the current crises, I learned that people are creative in thinking about the unthinkable, and downright ingenious in managing the unmanageable.
Alexander Alonso, SHRM-SCP, is chief knowledge officer for SHRM.