Not Just a New York State of Mind

As I watched the coverage of the shooting around the Empire State Building, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the frightening Gallup poll results that were documented in the first chapter of Mindful Stress Solutions for Today’s Leaders:

  • Fourteen percent of workers feel like striking a coworker;
  • A quarter feel like screaming or shouting because of job stress;
  • One out of ten is concerned about an individual at work they fear could become violent;
  • Almost the same number are aware of an assault or violent act in their workplace;  and
  • Eighteen percent of those same respondents have experienced some sort of threat or verbal intimidation in the past year.

The alleged shooter, Jeffrey Johnson, had been fired from his job at least a year ago (details still coming in as I’m writing this) and fatally wounded a co-worker who may have been his boss at the company where Johnson had worked.


Turning Tragedy Into a Teachable Moment

  1. If a tenth of us are afraid that a colleague could actually become violent, we have an obligation as leaders to be fully immersed in the culture of our respective work places.  Because it is natural for us to be concerned about how the image of our work environment reflects upon us as individual leaders, we can oftentimes choose to portray the culture of our business to others as better than it actually may be.
  2. Although there are no guaranteed strategies that could prevent a similar tragedy, there are steps we can take as leaders to lessen the risk.  For example, a former employer of mine went to great lengths to assist affected employees during a recent downsizing by providing job placement and other services that helped many to walk away with a less bitter taste in their mouths.
  3. It is critical that we build cultures of impermanence in today’s workplaces.  In this economy, it is financially suicidal not to constantly think five steps ahead of our customers and keep adapting our strategies, processes, work flows and training to align with where the market is heading.  That means we must constantly evaluate our organizations, from job applicant screening questions to coaching and colleague engagement efforts, to ensure that we view ongoing change as an indicator of a company’s success and of an individual’s job security.  In fact, the litmus test of this culture of impermanence is the presence of a large number of colleagues who view their employer’s lack of change as a possible indicator of future instability.


Building a Culture of Impermanence

As leaders, we oftentimes work very hard to calm the waters of uncertainty within our teams by portraying impermanence as the evil to be eliminated.  When change inevitably appears, it is hardly surprising that the stress levels of our workplaces increase exponentially and push the statistics mentioned earlier even higher.

We must work every day to help our teams to focus on their roles as they pertain to the overall sustainability of the larger organization.  In a prior Linked 2 Leadership post, I stated that

Even with existing colleagues, we can adopt a culture of impermanence through training and the practice of mindful techniques.”

Within that paradigm, we need to make sure that we all understand that those roles will change over time and why those changes should be welcomed as a sign that our company’s top leadership is focused on staying ahead of the competition.


Communicating Change

Therefore, we must watch the language that we use with our colleagues and ensure that it aligns with this shifting culture.  As we design our PowerPoints and whiteboard diagrams, we must be mindful of how we box ourselves into roles and responsibilities that can mislead employees into thinking that there is no gray area.

In fact, we need to make sure that, to the extent possible, we stay very transparent about the likelihood of workplace impermanence (e.g., having a front-line worker responsible for communicating pending work-flow changes and gathering input to help peers feel that they are a part of the change process).


The Benefits of Proactive and Mindful Leadership

As with all proactive leadership, we have an opportunity to evaluate our individual and company’s preparedness for change.  We may never know the extent to which our efforts in this regard might possibly dissuade someone from causing harm to others but is the lack of tangible proof enough to keep us from, at the very least, taking another look at our work cultures?

It will be easy to chalk up the incident in New York as the violent act of a disgruntled ex-employee.  Mindful leadership reminds us that we have the ability to relieve the suffering of others by giving them options when responding to stressful situations.  Or as William James put it,

The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”


Mindful Follow-Up Questions

What mechanisms do you have in place to evaluate the culture of your work-place?  What is the template for taking action based on regular workplace culture assessments?

Do most of your employees yearn for stability vs. change?  Do leaders in your organization understand the impact to stress levels by assuming stasis should be the cultural and colleague engagement default setting?

What are the teachable moments from well-publicized workplace violence events that can be applied to your business today and in the long term?

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