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Karen Firestone Headshot

Leading People in an Anxious World

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Safety is now Americans' overriding concern. Several years ago, as I sat in a secondary school board meeting, the visiting headmaster of a K-8 school was asked what he considered the highest priority for parents in choosing high schools. I was astounded when he said "safety" rather than, for example, "quality of education." But that was just a hint of how Americans' safety fears would blossom in the years to come. We have become the most anxious of nations, fearing terrorists, gun rampage, sexual assault, hurricanes, tornadoes, snowstorms, identity theft, discrimination, and germs, among other things, and not necessarily in that order.

CEOs and managers need to understand what that means to their organizations. Our colleagues at work harbor worries in varying degrees, and management faces the new challenge of non-judgmentally navigating this path to security while recognizing the cost of protection. While we might think that common sense should guide us in evaluating the appropriate action to take about heightened risks, my idea of "reasonable" might be one partner's concept of "reckless." I favor encryption when any sensitive numbers or identifying data is sent to clients, but would not safeguard the average email, where a few colleagues might raise our safety bar as high as possible, almost regardless of cost. As a firm, we're debate these issues more now than we ever did before.

When it comes to physical safety, the sensitivity of the topic can make debate feel untouchable. Prior to one of many storms last winter, our governor suggested that people stay off the roads to make way for plows. Even if I felt the directive was alarmist, safety does and should take precedent. In that case, our firm settled on a compromise where people use discretion in their travel to and from work, but the office is open. We can all estimate the cost in wages, rent and even missed opportunities to sit with clients or each other.

This new frontier demands an executive response aimed at making constituents feel secure, first, while also evaluating the cost of any added safeguards. Here are some considerations for managers that have been on my mind:

Recognize that we have widely different thresholds beyond which we begin to feel unsafe. In my financial services company, we have a broad range of attitudes about required security levels for everything from our office entrance, digital encryption, and road safety during severe weather. It is essential to listen and not force our own attitude onto our colleagues and employees.

Try to design policies so that employees feel empowered to make some decisions themselves. For example, if the governor advises residents to avoid driving during a hurricane warning, let people make their own choices about coming to or leaving work. Otherwise, companies run the risk of people being resentful, anxious, or distracted.

Analyze situations carefully in terms of potential costs, liabilities, and benefits. A few years ago, I had a stalker. After this man aggressively charged into our office, running past the security officer and into the elevator, several of my colleagues not surprisingly felt that we needed to create a safer environment. I was less worried, despite being the target of his interest, believing that a night in jail and a severe warning from the judge might have an effect. However, we needed to address everyone's anxiety; that required studying access and surveillance systems for doors, elevators, and hallways. We selected a new entry locking system and convinced our building-mates to install access card security in the elevators. While the costs were not extreme, they were still meaningful, but the benefit in terms of everyone's comfort level was worthwhile.

Sometimes it's worth it to take a well-calculated risk. On the day of the manhunt for the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, the governor of Massachusetts ordered a "lockdown" in the highest risk towns and advised, but did not order, residents of other communities to stay home from work for the day. I had already driven into work before knowing the extent of the restrictions, having written an email suggesting that my colleagues listen to the news, use discretion, and follow the governor's instructions.

Part of my decision hinged on a meeting planned that day with a client prospect, who, I suspected, might decide to come into Boston that day anyway. I wrote him to say that I was available if, by any chance, he was in the city, but that if not, we should reschedule at his convenience. He was already at work in his office a block away. While not the major reason, I believe that one factor in his choice to hire us is that we shared a similar, albeit, contrarian view of the widespread lockdown, and he read something into that about my work ethic and that of a few colleagues who rode bikes, walked or drove into city.

Most importantly, managers must understand that this is a different world where we constantly face challenges related to safety. The cost to address security in the physical and digital workplace is simply a larger expense line than in the past, whether because of lost work days or because of the cost of securing computers, digital files, or buildings. I've realized that I must not judge anyone's decision to either come to work on a potentially dangerous day, or to stay home with their families. This is especially true when public transportation has been canceled, or when family dynamics factor into individual decision making.

As managers, we must be sensitive to our employees' fears and anxieties, which themselves reduce productivity and satisfaction, while also being aware of what that means financially. So when I suggest that we drive out to Six Flags and ride the roller coaster together as a bonding experience, I am ready to accept a toned down tilt-a-whirl option, predetermined "designated drivers" for the ride home, and pre-screening the amusement park for security protocol. This is our new world.

Cross-posted from Harvard Business Review