How do you bounce back from insufferable tragedy?

That's the question Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has been grappling with for two years, since her husband passed away unexpectedly on a trip to Mexico in 2015--and the topic she covers in her new book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.

Time magazine's recent cover story documents some of Sandberg's struggles in returning to work, which included occasionally breaking down in tears during team meetings. Yet, just a month after tragedy struck, Sandberg showed signs of remarkable resilience via an update she posted on Facebook.

"I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice," she wrote. "You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning."

Emotional intelligence is a person's ability to identify emotions, to recognize their powerful effect, and to use that information to inform and guide behavior. In short, it amounts to making emotions work for you, instead of against you.

With that post, Sandberg gave us a window into her emotions--and her thoughts. Yes, she was experiencing extraordinary grief. But she was also learning from her newfound circumstances.

Soon, she would take those learnings a step further.

Compassion in Action

In February, Sandberg announced significant changes to her company's policies, which she announced on Facebook:

"Amid the nightmare of Dave's death when my kids needed me more than ever, I was grateful every day to work for a company that provides bereavement leave and flexibility. I needed both to start my recovery."

"Today, we're taking another step. We're extending bereavement leave to give our employees more time to grieve and recover and will now provide paid family leave so they can care for sick family members as well."

The new policy includes:

  • up to 20 days paid leave to grieve an immediate family member
  • up to 10 days to grieve an extended family member
  • up to six weeks of paid leave to care for a sick relative
  • paid family sick time - three days to take care of a family member with a short-term illness (like a child with the flu)

"Great workforce policies make for great employees...and we've seen again and again that being committed to our people makes our people more committed to Facebook," wrote Sandberg.

Let's take a moment to appreciate this real-world example of emotional intelligence.

Sandberg experienced a life-changing tragedy. But instead of becoming embittered or simply finding a way to move on, she used this event to reflect on how others might be affected by similar circumstances.

Even more importantly, she did more than feel empathy. She exercised it: by transforming her compassion into positive action.

Of course, policy changes are only a beginning. And they don't mean anything if they aren't founded on a culture of caring and support.

But in a world where understanding and fellow feeling have become the exception as opposed to the rule, this is a definite step in the right direction.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the name of Sheryl Sandberg's new book: It is Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, co-authored by Adam Grant.

Published on: May 4, 2017
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