Collins | Defusing Distress During Uncertain Times

I know of no crisis communications manual or management course that instructs one on how to lead during a worldwide pandemic. The reality is that managers must continue to find ways to engage, motivate and lead an anxious workforce while dealing with those same anxieties themselves.

Last week we kicked off the virtual version of MFM’s annual conference, Media Finance Focus 2020. When we originally planned our “View From the Top” session, it was to be a conversation about new business opportunities and how the industry’s finance community could support their leaders’ vision. When the world changed in March and we had to confront the realities of the coronavirus pandemic, we immediately realized that this would be a defining topic and must be our opening keynote.

Yes, our three leaders, Darrell Brown, president of Bonneville International Corp.; Randy Pitchford, president and CEO, Gearbox Software; and Ken Solomon, chairman of the board and CEO of The Tennis Channel, talked about ongoing industry disruption and new technologies. We can cover those topics in future columns. What spoke to me though, was the ways they are navigating leadership challenges during these uncertain times. Each showed compassion that surely played a role in their rise to the top.

I know of no crisis communications manual or management course that instructs one on how to lead during a worldwide pandemic. What prepares management for the call about reporters who have been attacked, arrested or both? How does one work with an employee whose parent, spouse or child is suffering with COVID-19 while worrying about their own family? The reality is that managers must continue to find ways to engage, motivate and lead an anxious workforce while dealing with those same anxieties themselves. Complicating everything is the knowledge that, as detailed in the blog Headspace, increases in employee stress and anxiety also add to organizational costs in the form of absenteeism, lost productivity, and increased healthcare spending.

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Author Sarah Levitt took on the topic of stress and distress for the May/June issue of MFM’s member magazine, The Financial Manager. Levitt is an executive coach who works with CEOs and other senior executives. She is also the author of Magnificent Leadership. Her advice to those confronted with what she terms “triggering situations” is to do nothing in the moment.

Levitt begins her column with a story that will be familiar to most managers. It’s the tale of departmental rivalry gone too far. In this case, everything looks great on paper. The company has “a strong product line, a great CEO and robust senior leadership.” Yet, the heads of sales and engineering are at each other’s throats. Refereeing the battles means the CEO has little time to focus on clients and prospects, a key part of the position’s responsibility. This is more than irritating; it means “lost opportunity and lost revenue.”

In her work with the team, Levitt helped them prepare a strategic plan, with specific actions and milestones along the way. They came together for a check-in at three months and again at the six-month mark. By that second check-in, the team was on a new and very productive path. But, that’s not the most important part of the story.


During her first meeting, Levitt explained the concept of fight, flight or freeze and “suggested that if anyone were to experience it to do nothing.” This concept was developed by physiologist Walter Cannon in the early part of the last century and has since been expanded to fight, flight, freeze and fawn, with the final term referring to an acute stress response. In the case of the warring departments, Levitt made the suggestion to help the team identify and avoid negative triggers that affect decisionmaking.

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According to Levitt, our bodies can tell us when we are being triggered. Clues include breathing that speeds up, a faster heartbeat that sounds louder than normal, muscles tensing and/or the face feeling flushed.

Fortunately, the remedy can be simple — get away from the situation. Levitt says something as simple as a walk outside can help a person return to center. Center, she says, is where people find common ground, and are most likely to see solutions not rooted in either defense or attack.

Being centered, according to Levitt, is the feeling one has after a run, a bike ride or something as simple as taking the dog for a long walk. She calls this state, “system relaxed,” it’s “baseline.”

High-performing executives in all fields have ways of finding center. For Steve Jobs it was meditation; Oprah took 10-minute breaks in her office closet. It’s not surprising that companies including Nike and Google have recognized the benefit of stepping away from stress and implemented mindfulness programs.

Headspace is an online company best known for its meditation app. The company’s blog talks about ways leaders can help their teams deal with the coronavirus, and offers five ways to practice mindfulness and compassionate leadership:

  • Look: Take time to check-in with your team. Look for the unsaid. How are people’s energy levels?
  • Listen: Practice mindful listening. Give your team space to be open and honest about how they feel, both mentally and physically.
  • Feel: Everyone is going to be feeling a range of different emotions. Taking the time to acknowledge how someone else is truly feeling empowers us to respond with kindness.
  • Respond: In times of high stress, it’s easy to let frustrations get in the way of skillful communication. Pause and give yourself space to respond skillfully and kindly.”
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The final directive, the one to “give yourself space to respond skillfully and kindly” are at the heart of Levitt’s column. She concludes by recommending that we all take extra care to keep ourselves centered. “If you’re triggered do nothing.”

A digital version of the May/June 2020 issue of TFM, which includes Sarah Levitt’s column, “Defusing the Distress,” is currently available to read on the MFM website here.

MFM’s virtual Media Finance Focus 2020 will continue through Aug. 27. Upcoming keynote topics include a two-part session on Tuesday, July 14. The first part features a “2020 Media and Entertainment Outlook” provided by Kevin Westcott, Deloitte’s vice chairman principal, U.S. telecom, media and entertainment lead. That will be followed by a look at how the finance and IT function can work together, “Get FIT For the Future,” from Sinclair Broadcast Group’s SVP and CIO, Brian Bark. A complete agenda for the conference is available at

Mary M. Collins is president and CEO of the Media Financial Management Association and its BCCA subsidiary, the media industry’s credit association. She can be reached at [email protected] and via the association’s LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts.

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