Feel like crying? Or maybe like complaining, cursing, screaming, or all the above?
If so, you are not alone these days. Even in the most sophisticated, polished and staid professional cultures, nerves are fraying, facades are cracking and composure is slipping. Let’s be real: The situation we’re facing sucks big time, and we all know it.
As I write this, a wide swath of humanity is currently in a heightened emotional state, suddenly confronted with often intense feelings of uncertainty, vulnerability, powerlessness and fear. For some, these feelings are truly overwhelming, leading researchers to warn that the coronavirus pandemic could inflict long-lasting emotional trauma on an unprecedented global scale.
All of that, of course, applies to the general population and society as a whole. In the legal profession, we were already on shakier mental footing than many other fields, and now coronavirus has come along to sweep the leg. Not good.
In light of this wholly unwelcome and new reality, my plea to law firms is that they need to understand and directly, outwardly and unequivocally acknowledge the emotional toll that is being exacted now on many within their organizations. They need to let their people know that what they are experiencing is normal and that it is OK to be human, at least right now.
If they don’t and instead adhere to business-as-usual expectations for behavior and comportment, they risk alienating their people, increasing the likelihood of bad outcomes and harming their culture in the long run by fostering emotional dissonance now.
Emotional dissonance, which is essentially the discrepancy between required and felt emotions, can have harmful effects on both individuals and the organizations that employ them.
When there is a conflict between the emotions experienced by employees and those required by their workplace, or when employees’ expressed emotions conform with organizational norms but do not represent their feelings, a panoply of undesirable results can occur, including reduced job satisfaction, drug and alcohol abuse, headaches, absenteeism, burnout, poor self-esteem, depression, cynicism and alienation.
Now, pause and think about the juxtaposition between the way many of us are currently feeling and the way those in the legal profession are expected to present and conduct themselves. Fear, worry and extreme stress are widespread, yet lawyers are generally expected to perform on unemotional terms and frequently hold the same expectations for those working with and for them.
Despite being anxious, sad and in some cases downright panicked, most feel they must maintain a veneer of calm, professionalism and stoicism because of their roles. This is a huge and largely unwinnable challenge during a worldwide pandemic.
Compounding this dilemma, those not experiencing increased psychological distress or discomfort at the moment—rare as those unicorns may be—are not always displaying the type of understanding and empathy that are truly imperative now. As such, firm managers must intervene and set the right tone and example for everyone.
Communicating the right message, which includes explicit acknowledgment that this is terrible, but it too shall pass, should be at the top of any leader’s to-do list if they want to avoid being viewed as tone-deaf to the current reality.
In addition to acknowledging the very real emotional component of this crisis, we all need to be genuinely encouraging each other, talking openly about available resources to help us cope, rinsing and repeating. To be clear, that’ll require operating outside of comfort zones for individuals and for organizations, but if we embrace the challenge, we might end up with some unexpected growth on the other side of all this.
In practical terms, some of us need to be willing to handhold, figuratively speaking, and some of us need to be open to having our hands held. Many of us need to do both, depending on the day. We all need to recognize the value and reciprocal nature of basic kindness and challenge ourselves to both offer and accept it. Whether through small gesture or large effort, now is the time to audition for the role of the person we’d all want others to say we are. For most of us, that includes being decent, kind and caring.
As a disclaimer, I want to be clear that, even in the midst of an unprecedented upheaval like the one we are living through, there is still a range of acceptable behavior in a work environment, whether in-person or remote. Lest the employment lawyers arrive on my metaphorical doorstep with pitchforks, I am not suggesting that all standards go out the window or that we should be operating in a behavioral free-for-all.
For example, abusive behavior is still abusive behavior, and creepy, offensive and overly emotional outbursts are still not appropriate. However, the range of emotion and humanity we would typically countenance in the workplace needs to be expanded. Many legal employers have mission statements or outward pronouncements that their people and culture are the key to their success. Now is the time to live those words with intention and tangible action.
This is going to be a moving target for the immediately foreseeable future, and none of us knows what is coming next, but that uncertainty creates an opportunity for firms to foster a sense of community and solidarity that will certainly outlive the virus. Banding together and allowing ourselves to be a little bit more human during this time will not only help individuals in the short term, it also will benefit organizations in the long run.
Patrick Krill is the founder of Krill Strategies, a behavioral health consulting firm focused exclusively on the legal industry. Go to www.prkrill.com for more information. He is also a member of Law.com’s Minds Over Matters advisory board.