by Mike Critelli
During the Great Depression — a most frightening time — President Franklin Roosevelt made this memorable statement during his First Inaugural Address:
Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
As leaders, we confront comparable fear, anxiety, divisive tendencies, and anger of our employees. How do we deal with it?
We remember that we have been here many times before.
Remembering the Past
Any American over 70 would have lived through all these frightening times. Younger Americans have lived through many of them.
Epidemics and Pandemics
In the early 1950’s, Americans were so fearful of children contracting the deadly and debilitating polio virus that swimming pools were closed during the summers and parents did not take their children to public beaches. That threat abated when the Salk vaccine was developed.
Highly contagious flu viruses, the HIV/AIDS virus, SARS1 and even deadlier viruses like Ebola dominated our mainstream news in every decade from the 1950’s onward.
America’s worst pandemic, the 1917-1919 flu pandemic accounted for 2x the percentage of deaths as the Covid pandemic. Parents of many older Americans lost siblings during this crisis. My own mother lost two siblings. That trauma was reactivated for her during the 1957-58 Asian flu pandemic.
The two elementary schools I attended between 1953 and 1962 had basements that could be used as nuclear fallout shelters. We had drills every year to practice what we would do in case of an attack. It was a constant reminder that a nuclear attack could happen at any time and kill us all.
This fear reached its peak with the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when we came to the brink of war with the Soviet Union. That crisis was easily the most frightening time for anyone alive then.
In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, many Americans were persuaded by demagogues like Senator Joe McCarthy that our federal government was infiltrated with hundreds of Communist spies and that we had millions of disloyal “fellow travelers” in our communities. Many innocent people had their lives and careers ruined by this hysteria.
In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, America was deeply divided about race relations, as well as the Vietnam war and its expansion into Cambodia. The Watergate scandal divided us and put our political system and the Constitution at great risk.
Politically Directed Violence
The assassinations of President Kennedy, Dr. King and Senator Robert Kennedy between 1963 and 1968, along with many deadly race riots, often precipitated by an incident of police violence, in the 1960’s, made us feel that the world was out of control.
In the late 1970’s, most Americans believed that we were in irreversible decline. Exceptionally high inflation (over 10%) and interest rates (also over 10%), a deeply troubled economic environment and the 1970’s Arab oil boycotts made us feel powerless.
The US was humiliated by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the taking of 53 US Iranian embassy employees as hostages.
The 2005 film Miracle, which depicted the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” US Olympic hockey team victory over the Soviet team, accurately captures American fear and depression in the late 1970’s.
In the 1980’s, unprecedented violent crime, homelessness, and a series of drug scourges from cocaine, crack, and heroin plagued our communities.
In the early 1990’s, New York City had 2,200 murders (4x the 2021 total) in a population one million lower than today.
Homeless beggars with obvious mental health issues were everywhere.
9/11 made us terrified of broadly-based, random terrorist attacks. As a public company CEO then, one of my jobs was to calm a frightened employee population. Four employees had died in the second World Trade tower.
The anthrax bioterrorism incidents in October, 2001 made our mailroom employees and ordinary Americans afraid to go to their mailboxes.
From Past to Present
How can leaders of corporations and other organizations help their employees avoid crippling fear in similar kinds of environments of the present day? Drawing from my own past experiences, along with those of today’s very successful leaders, I can offer a number of recommendations:
Understand the nature of employee fears. Gather and analyze the best data from the best sources for the best insights. The software and augmented analytics platform we have here at the MakeUsWell Network is focused on just this.
Move employees away from what Roosevelt called “paralyzing fear” by directing them to what they themselves can do. We could not stop anthrax-laced mail from being received, but we could help our mailroom employees and the public spot suspicious-looking mail. Knowing that we can all take steps to reduce risk will calm most people.
Practice and promote critical thinking to help employees assess real risk levels. For those who believed terrorist threats were both imminent and widespread after 9/11, I had to get them to understand that, if it were true, many more terrorist incidents would have occurred.
Help families, employees, and communities disengage from addictive and destructive online media. Use in-person or telephone communication to clear the air, rather than anonymous Internet postings. Take time before responding to nasty messages, rather than escalating conflict. Meeting friends and colleagues in outdoor cafes or well-ventilated, well-spaced coffee shops should be reincorporated back into our daily habits. We are, after all, social beings.
Lead conversations with employees about how and why the media, special interest groups, elected officials, and their opponents, are frightening and dividing us. These forces are far more interested in, and effective at, making us fearful in order to serve their ends.
Know your context. Every organization has varying degrees of tolerance for intense and potentially divisive political dialogue. Some, like Coinbase, have decided that politics has no place in the workplace. Others tolerate political debate because they believe strongly in free speech, but they expect discourse to remain civil. Understanding what kind of discourse an organization can absorb, while remaining focused on the organization’s core mission, is critical. One size definitely does not fit all.
Do not make matters worse by dividing employees and other stakeholders. When leaders convey a message that “we’re all in this together,” then fear abates. One of our MakeUsWell Network software products uses natural language processing to flag highly divisive and negative language, and recommend alternative words and phrases.
We have the ability to tackle these very real and very big societal issues. Let’s not make our task harder by injecting fear into our hearts, minds, and bodies, or by failing to confront our fears intelligently.