Leaders must not be afraid to show emotion in a crisis, according to Carrie Birmingham, former HR director at News UK and director of Carrie Birmingham Consult.
Speaking at a London HR Connection event, Birmingham described the huge emotional trauma all employees experienced when it was revealed in 2011 that the phones of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, relatives of deceased British soldiers, and victims of the 7 July 2005 London bombings had been hacked by journalists at the organisation.
“The first journalists, it took three years for them to come to trial… you can imagine what that was like for people who had uncertainty for so long,” she said. “This happened over 10 years and eight police investigations, which extended far beyond the reach of News UK.”
Birmingham said it was tempting for leaders to “stop listening” and put on a “brave face” in such a situation, but that this was exactly the opposite of what [she] wanted them to do with their staff.
“I wanted them to admit this was difficult, and we needed people to adapt their messages to who they were talking to,” she said.
Birmingham reported bursting into tears when delivering some particularly tough news to employees. “I was totally ashamed, but actually it was amazing listening to the response from staff about the humanness of that, that then informed how we handled these conversations,” she said. “That was a huge lesson that staying connected to these emotions is important.
“Any leader's first instinct in these instances is survival,” Birmingham added, saying however that this leads to unhelpfully short-term thinking: “I think there were points at which we went down that route and had to hold ourselves back [from it],” she said.
Birmingham also revealed her concern that business continuity and crisis planning at most organisations currently is too narrow in focus. “Crises don’t go from A to Z,” she said, suggesting businesses focus much more on “the day to day: how that [a crisis] will feel, how we are going to be.
“There’s no harm in doing the practice run, as long as no-one thinks that’s what’s going to happen,” she added.
A key lesson for Birmingham from her experiences was to “invest in [expert, external] people who are going to help you get through it.” She highlighted though the important role HR must play in crisis situations, reporting that at News UK it significantly increased the role and status of HR for teams previously only interested in the function's administrative support.
She pointed to the Grenfell Tower disaster as a recent example of the importance of HR in managing extreme employee stress and disengagement. “I wonder what it’s like for the council people to walk into that building at the moment and I wonder who’s thinking about what they’re going through,” she said. “Who’s worrying about them? I hope someone is. Because if no-one is the organisation doesn’t recover from that.”
Birmingham talked of managing her own sense of shame alongside supporting employees experiencing similar feelings: “I was an employee too so I overnight went from being proud to embarrassed to work there… I had my Mum say ‘can you resign tomorrow? I’m not OK with this'.”
But for Birmingham staying was the most ethical approach. “I thought: I can do something to help this,” she reports. “I’d been in the organisation a while and people trusted me so I could be well-placed to help them.”
She added: “I have this unhelpful belief that if it’s hard it’s worth doing. I enjoy learning so it stretched me to think about completely new areas.”
Carrie Birmingham is conducting research into how extraordinary events create ripples in organisations. If you have experience of this topic please contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org