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An Invitation to Leaders During Challenging Times

organization and culture
Jessica Dolce
An Invitation to Leaders During Challenging Times

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 We’re in a particularly difficult time right now in animal welfare and animal sheltering.

I’m hearing a lot of despair, panic, and hopelessness, not only from staff, but from folks in leadership roles too.

So, I wanted to offer up an invitation for leaders to consider how they’re publicly speaking about this hard time that we find ourselves in.

Here’s what I know is true:

The stories that we tell about the challenges we’re facing have the power to deplete OR sustain our resilience.

This means we need to be mindful of the way that we’re framing this difficult time whenever we’re talking with our staff or volunteers.

We can say whatever we want in private, but publicly we need to be aware of our messaging so that it helps to sustain, not drain, the people doing the work.

Research reveals that human beings have five essential needs that, when met, help us to get through and recover from adversity:

  1. Safety (physical and psychological)
  2. Calm (the ability to calm physiologically)
  3. Social support
  4. Self and collective efficacy
  5. Hopefulness (for the future)

Let’s look at those last two.

Having a sense of self and collective efficacy means we believe that we have what it takes to get through a challenge both as an individual and as part of a team, organization, or community.

We believe in our ability to cope with difficult emotions and we believe we have the technical skills to handle what we’re facing.

We have what it takes – the competence – both individually and collectively to rise to the occasion.

Hopefulness is the faith that it will be okay at some point in the future. That we’re going to be alright, even if we’re not right now.

We need leaders to bring a sense of collective efficacy and hopefulness into conversations with staff right now.

Workers need to know that we have come so far in animal sheltering and that all that progress is not going away. Even if we’re in a really tough downswing right now, even if we take temporary steps backward, it’s not going to permanently erase all the progress that we’ve made.

Do you remember what it was like 15, 25, 40 years ago in animal sheltering? In the span of a single career in this field we’ve done incredible things.

Our euthanasia rates used to be what our live release rates are now.

Not long ago there were no veterinarians trained in shelter medicine, there was no such thing as veterinary social workers. In the 1980s, the term compassion fatigue didn’t even exist, let alone the work I do!

I think back to my time in animal sheltering in 2008, during the Great Recession and the housing crash. Generally speaking, shelters weren’t adopting out pit bulls without a TON of restrictions.

We weren’t adopting out cats with FIV or treating ringworm. We didn’t have much in the way of dog play groups or robust enrichment programs or behavior departments.

Just a couple of decades ago we didn’t have a global transport network or HQHVSN clinics around the country. We didn’t have social media to market our pets.

We were just starting to build the pet owner support and surrender prevention programs that are such a huge part of our work now.

And I know there’s lots that I’m not listing here. The point is we’ve been steadily improving things for decades.

I’m not saying this in a: “Back in our day, we had it so much harder, so you need to suck it up!” kind of way.

Not at all. I’m sharing this as a reminder that we’re part of a great lineage of people who have been moving this field forward for years.

We can lean on that history.

People made those innovations happen in difficult times with very few resources and very little support. Despite the odds, they moved the field forward.

The reminder of how much we’ve accomplished – our collective past – can help sustain us in the present.

Despite how difficult things are right now, all the evidence points to us succeeding over time.

No matter how slow or nonexistent the progress seems right now, we are continuing the work.

And there is very good reason to believe that we have the competence to get through this. All of those decades of training, knowledge, programs, systems, and practices we’ve built – they didn’t just disappear.

Even if we’re not able to function at the level that we’re used to or that we wish we could right now, all of that progress is still present in the work we’re doing.

That gives me hope that it’s going to be okay at some point. I don’t know when it’s going to be okay, but I do know that everything is a cycle.

Spring always comes after winter. Day always comes after night.

Metaphorically we are in a deep winter right now. We don’t know when winter will end, but we know that spring will come.

We need to hold the hope that things are going to be okay.

That doesn’t mean that we dismiss how difficult this is.

We can ground ourselves in the current reality of how challenging things are and adjust our expectations so they’re more realistic for 2022. We need to tend to ourselves and each other, because we are hurting.

And, at the same time, we can believe in our ability to cope with this challenge and hold hope for the future.

It’s always both/and. That’s what will sustain our energy and resilience.

So that’s my invitation to all of you in leadership roles (and the rest of us): consider the way that you’re framing this challenge for your staff. They are looking to you to tell them if they’re going to be okay.

Think of how we look to flight attendants when there’s turbulence on a plane. If they’re calm, we trust that we’re going to be okay. But if they’re panicking or despairing, we know we’re going down.

As a leader if you do not model that competence and confidence for them, staff are not going to believe that they have what it takes to get through this. They will not have hope. They will have despair.

Our sense of self and collective efficacy and our hope for the future is deeply shaped by the people in our organizations with the most power and experience. It comes from the top.

Help your people see the big picture. They need to know they are part of something much larger than themselves.

No matter how hard it is right now, no matter how many temporary steps backwards we may take, ultimately, our collective efforts always add up to make a positive impact.

We will continue to move our mission forward.

Spring is going to come again.

I believe in all of you. I know we can get through it.

I know this because we have decades of evidence that proves we have always found a way forward. Always.

You’re pretty amazing, you know that?


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