Meghan Markle’s article in the The New York Times, “The Losses we Share” resonated with me at so many levels. “Some have bravely shared their stories; they have opened the door, knowing that when one person speaks truth, it gives license for all of us to do the same” she writes and my experience up to now has been the same. When “Factions of a Mind” was published, one of the most common comments I received was that it made readers’ grief easier, and that comment was accompanied by an “apology” because they felt guilty that they felt better. But I was glad to be on the receiving end of those comments because that was exactly why I wrote the book. To give myself and others permission and a voice to speak the unspeakable. Sharing your pain is the first step to healing. 

My work with organisations and leaders at the moment involves a lot of interventions around leading in a crisis and under pressure, empowering and engaging people during a pandemic and supporting resilience in the workplace. When I receive the brief from most of them there is an implied mandate to keep it “positive”, “look into the future”, and some of them can’t even understand why some individuals are not performing at expected levels or what is even the problem because they have managed to “hack it” while others don’t seem “to get a grip”… it’s to such an extent that it sometimes can be quite disturbing.

What organisations and leaders tend to do is to skip this vital step of acknowledging and accepting that some people are seriously being challenged and that by focusing on the positive only they are actually discounting their feelings, and this approach has an equally toxic effect. Just like we can get stuck in difficult emotions, we can also get stuck in the idea of ‘positive only’ and this is fundamentally an avoidant coping strategy. When we default to ‘Just Be Positive’ we close ourselves off from learning from difficult emotions, understanding what values emotions are signposting, and to developing skills in dealing with these difficult emotions.

Leaders and organisations tend to avoid talking about feelings and seem to believe that the workplace has no space for emotions. Some even go to great lengths to divorce themselves from their feelings. Human interactions and human nature was always about feelings and more so now than ever before. People need to know leaders truly care about them before they start to care about what they know and what they have to say. And if the words feelings or emotions sound too soft, I suggest that they should add the word Neuroscience to their vocabulary as we have enough evidence nowadays why leaders need to know their biology. 

One of the many valuable discoveries for leadership was that of the mirror neurons in the early 1990s. Scientists found that when one person observes another do some kind of action, the neurons of the first person fire as if they were actually doing it. Mirror neurons are really important for learning, emotional awareness, and empathy. When we see someone experiencing an emotion, our brain processes that emotion as well, subsequently increasing empathy. The reason why mirror neurons can be important aspects of leadership is because we can see how our emotional and physical states as leaders are actually teaching our employees how to act and how to respond emotionally to us. So basically, a leader’s emotions can have a ripple effect on the whole organization. Mirror neurons once again, prove how much humans are social animals and how we are highly connected to the people and the environments around us.

Because of this connection, leaders can create environments where people can mirror others who create collaborative and cooperative learning and working atmospheres. Individuals are important to the team and the team is important to the individuals through the power or mirror neurons. 

In addition, as a leader, it is particularly useful to know that when we are faced with stress or a threat, the executive functions of the brain shut down, leaving the unconscious processes of the limbic system in charge of decision making. These parts of the brain react on emotion and survival instincts. 

Leaders also need to be aware that in terms of learning and team building, change happens not from the cerebral cortex (involved in voluntary activities, language, speech, and multiple brain functions, such as thinking and memory) but from the limbic system (network of structures located beneath the cerebral cortex involved in behavioural and emotional responses, especially when it comes to behaviours we need for survival). This is important knowledge for any intervention they might want to design that will have an actual impact especially at the moment as we are going through the pandemic. 

Another important aspect which we see lately reappearing due to its relevance, is the concept of grief leadership, which was coined by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research’s neuropsychiatry department who were studying the aftermath of the December 1985 crash of a military transport jet in Gander, Newfoundland and killed 248 members plus its crew. Even though this was about a disaster, the concept itself is actually applicable to any situation that may involve grief. In my experience, people avoid talking about grief because they can’t handle the negative emotions of sadness and pain and they think that they will make the person who is grieving feel worse by talking about it. The opposite is actually true. By not allowing the space the person who is grieving feels discounted and eventually worse. Also, grief may not necessarily be related to death, it could be related to loss of a job, of our identity, of a life not lived, of our purpose, to only mention a few. The mourning process is the same. 

Joshua C. Morganstein, MD, Associate Professor and Assistant Chair at the Department of Psychiatry (Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences) clusters our psychological and behavioural responses to pandemics and disaster in the following categories: 

  • Distress Reactions: sleep difficulties, physical (somatic) symptoms, distraction and isolation, decreased sense of safety.
  • Health risk behaviours: excessive use of tobacco, alcohol and self-medication, family distress, interpersonal conflict / violence, disrupted work/life balance, restricted activities / travel. 
  • Psychiatric disorders: PTSD, depression, anxiety, complex grief (also referred to as complicated grief – when feelings of loss are debilitating and don’t improve even after time passes.
  • And of course, a lot of us will exhibit resilience. 

So, in an organisational environment all those categories will be present in one form or another and as a leader you need to acknowledge that you will have people going through any of those and that your role is vital in shaping those responses. 

Here are a few of the things you could do as a leader: 

  1. Be present and communicate, even if there is nothing new to say. Another phenomenon that we experienced when the pandemic started was that of the “absent leader”. Our brain has a strong tendency for a negative bias and when we don’t have the information, we will make it up. Any information is better than no information. This is why conspiracy theories are so rife during these periods. 
  2. Encourage collaboration, community spirit and opportunities that bring people together and enhance the sense of belonging and purpose. 
  3. Create the space and time to allow discussions about emotions and anticipate and acknowledge grief. To achieve this you need to be ok with your own vulnerability and allow it to be seen. Honour any losses and create rituals that will allow people to connect and be able to look into the future and live and grow with the loss. 

Honest recognition of loss and grief truthfully and authentically balancing it with hope and bounded optimism is the key. Leaders need to encourage openness at the workplace in a psychologically safe environment that would allow vulnerability, expressions of emotions and discussions about grief. We all need to become more emotionally literate. Death has its own language and we ought to learn to speak it. Only yesterday I had two emergencies, one of a woman (cancer-survivor herself) who just lost a family member from cancer and covid19 and was only able to say goodbye through a window and another woman who was giving birth to her first child. Life and death at the same time. I was at awe with how opposite these two events were and how I needed to hold the space and emotions for both at the same time. 

Look around you. Life at the moment is full of extreme emotions and paradoxes. The beauty and fragility of life are so interwoven, and we need to become better at navigating the full range of what makes us human. Anything less than that means we are not living life to its fullest. Integration is the key. 

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