The one safe assumption is that you don’t know everything.

Prickly pear cactus, a common plant where I grew up, but in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.
Desert plants growing in an unexpected place: the Jardin des Plantes in Paris

Content warning: this post contains a discussion of racially motivated violence and murder.

This week we’re continuing the series on anti-racist management practices and laying the groundwork for diverse, equitable teams. If you haven’t yet read the previous posts in this series, this one should still be actionable, but I do recommend going back and reading the previous two.

Assume you don’t know how your team is impacted by external events.

I’ve said it before on this blog, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: you don’t know the whole story behind your reports’ work or what they’re bringing to the table. Even in a close working relationship, there are going to be times when your report is affected by events in the news or in their own life that you aren’t aware of. Your job as a manager is to create the environment that makes it feel possible – if not comfortable – for them to tell you when those events are impacting their ability to work effectively.

I’ll take myself as an example. I’m generally seen as a cisgender white woman, with all the privileges that perceived identity entails. I’ve lived in New England for nearly my entire adult life. Very little of my visible circumstances would show you that I grew up in southern New Mexico, near the border, that I’m biracial, that issues of immigration centered on the Mexican border are deeply personal and immediate to me. I’m generally pretty vocal about issues that I care about, but immigrants’ rights feel so personal to me that I often don’t talk about them except with my closest friends and family. So, when there’s a vigilante shooting targeting Hispanic and Latinx people in El Paso, Texas, as there was in August of 2019, it might not seem obvious that I would feel personally impacted.

How does that connect to work? Well, a less aware manager than I had at the time (thanks, Michelle!) might have seen that I was distracted and assumed that it meant I was not dedicated to my job. Maybe they would have written me up for mistakes I made while trying to focus through grief. Maybe they would demand a note from my therapist or my doctor if I asked to take a mental health day to process and attend a local vigil, introducing logistical hurdles that would preclude the effectiveness of the time off. Over time, these things can add up to a serious impact on someone’s ability to maintain the working relationships required to keep and advance in a job.

Similarly, if you are not feeling personally affected, it might not seem that news of a Black person being killed by police in another state would impact your Black employees personally. But these news stories add up, and they add up to personal grief and an understanding that the physical distance doesn’t protect you or your loved ones from a similar encounter. In situations like we’re in now in the U.S., where the main focus of the news cycle and social media discussions is on systematized racial violence, it is worth understanding that your organization’s mission may not be able to stay at the top of your employees’ attention in that moment.

So how do you make room for understanding the impact of external events on your team members, and for giving them space while maintaining (or, dare I say, improving) the overall effectiveness of your team? A few places to get started:

  • Make a “focus check” a regular part of your routine one-on-one meetings with your direct reports, ideally weekly. It can be as simple as asking for a “red/yellow/green” status, where red is “major difficulty focusing,” yellow is “generally okay but there are significant distractions,” and green is “good to go.” They don’t need to provide details or tell you why if any one week is yellow, but if you see three or more weeks of yellow or they’re giving you red, that’s a signal to ask if they need help meeting a significant deadline or to take some time away from their desk. Importantly, make sure they know that the focus check is informational only: they aren’t going to get in trouble for having a red or yellow status, but there may be conversations about helping them get the resources they need if their work is being impacted.
  • Ensure that your policy for taking mental health days and the mental health resources your company offers are clear, easily accessible, and easy to execute when an employee needs them most: which is to say, when they are in crisis mode and can’t spare the focus or energy to go through a lot of logistical processes.
  • Be really clear on what kinds of deadlines are “must meet” and what the impact is of unmet deadlines. That helps you understand whether you need to re-delegate work (or take it on yourself) if an impacted team member needs to take time away, or whether they can reasonably set it aside and pick it back up when they’ve re-energized.
  • Ensure that no critical tasks are the sole responsibility of any one individual. Make it possible (if not easy) for another team member to take on a critical task if its usual owner can’t complete it.
  • Be on the lookout for “that’s not my job” attitudes when someone is asked to pick up a task for an impacted team member. Practice what you’ll say in response. Look for ways to share these expectations when you’re training new employees.

While I’m focused here on the example of the stress and distraction of racial injustice, any employee can find themselves under unusual stress at any moment, for any number of reasons. You don’t have to be a therapist for your reports in difficult moments (nor should you try), but creating systematic approaches like these to help identify and mitigate the impacts of that stress at work – where you, the manager, have power to do that – will improve the resilience and effectiveness of your team as a whole in the long run.