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How to Talk with Your Team About the Violence at the U.S. Capitol

This article originally published on Harvard Business Review.

by Ella F. Washington, Alison Hall Birch, and Erika Hall

Summary. Many leaders don’t know how to discuss current events that elicit strong opinions and emotions and so their default is to say nothing or make only a passing comment. They must instead lean into moments of disbelief, frustration, anger, fear, and anything else people might be feeling. Begin by remembering two things: one, political views may vary but there should be no tolerance for violence, racism, or attacks on democracy in a respectable organization, and two, employee reactions will depend on their unique backgrounds and experiences. Now you can engage in constructive dialogue by creating space, acknowledging the difficulty of processing the event, affirming everyone’s perspectives, speaking to your personal reaction without making assumptions or generalizations, offering immediate and ongoing support, reinforcing your personal and your organization’s values, and highlighting additional resources.

So many Americans are infuriated and heartbroken by the events that occurred in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021. As lawmakers convened in a joint session in the House of Representatives chamber to count Electoral College votes and certify the election of the 46th President of the United States, rioters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the process of democracy at work. It was a horrifying display of domestic terrorism.

When major events like this happen, with millions of people watching, the workplace spillover is inevitable. And, particularly over the past year, many organizations have committed to stepping up in such situations to support their workers’ needs. Consider the clear and strong stances many companies took in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police, including work with internal and external partners to develop their DEI competencies and address social justice issues. This is yet another opportunity for managers to put those corporate ideals into practice on the ground.

Many leaders are unsure about how to discuss current events that elicit strong opinions and emotions from their team members and so their default is to say nothing or make only a passing comment. Resist that tendency. You need to instead lean into this moment of disbelief, frustration, anger, fear, and anything else people might be feeling — not only today but from here on out. When something unspeakable occurs, you won’t find the perfect words to calm your people and restore their focus. No one does. But it is important that you acknowledge pain when it is felt. It is top of mind for your employees, and they are waiting to hear from you.

As you approach these crucial conversations, two things should be clear in your mind:

  • Political views may vary but there is no tolerance for the spreading of disinformation, racism, violence, or attacks on democracy in a civil society or a respectable organization.

  • Each team member’s context is unique. For example, as women of color, we are hurt and angered by the contrast between law enforcement’s docile response to yesterday’s rioters and the undue force shown to peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters last summer. Others might be triggered by seeing a Confederate flag paraded through the Capitol or a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt proudly worn by a trespasser because it harkens back to horrific acts of past violence. And employees born outside the United States who have histories in countries with government uprisings leading to civil wars might be reminded of those experiences.

Now you can focus on encouraging an inclusive dialogue that shows you to be a supportive leader who cares about your employees both at work and in life. Here’s a template you might follow:

Create space. Let your team know that the crisis has been on your mind and you want to give them time and a venue (even if it’s virtual) to express their feelings about what’s happened. Clarify that it’s also okay to not discuss it if they prefer.

  • “I want you to know that part of being able to bring your whole self to work is not ignoring the things that impact us outside of it.”

  • “What’s on your mind today?”

  • “How did yesterday’s events affect you?”

  • “How did that situation make you feel about the work you do here?”

Acknowledge. Show that you understand how difficult it can be to process traumatic events.

  • “I recognize you might not be able to articulate all your feelings, and that’s okay.”

  • “I know it might be hard for any of us to get our heads around what happened.”

  • “I understand that you might be distracted today.”

Affirm. Demonstrate that you are taking in individual perspectives.

  • “I appreciate you sharing how this looks and feels from your point of view.”

  • “Thank you for opening up and speaking so honestly and vulnerably about this.”

Personalize. Share your own authentic reactions but don’t make assumptions or generalizations about how others feel.

  • “I felt ________ when watching the news.”

  • “Today _________ is really on my mind.”

  • Do not say: “I can imagine as a person of color you may feel upset/angry.”

Offer support. Let your team know you stand ready to help them today and going forward.

  • “How can I offer you support?”

  • “I’m here for you if you want to discuss any of this in the future.”

Reinforce values. Remind people of your personal and your organization’s commitment to employee wellbeing, democratic values, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

  • “Our leadership team remains committed to __________.”

  • “I’m always going to stand up for this team and our values.”

Highlight resources. Point people to your organization’s DEI and mental health support groups and programs, as well as online guides to external help. The events of the past several years — culminating in yesterday’s attempted coup — have left a great many of us reeling. Managers need to check in with their teams now more than ever, engage in open and honest conversations, help people process their evolving emotions, share their perspectives and opinions, and offer ongoing support. Done right, this sets the stage for the kind of strong manager-employee relationship that can also weather turbulent times in the future.

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