The new president’s divisive agenda and foes’ strident opposition to it ensured that huge rifts among voters formed on Election Day are still wide open. Then President Trump’s immigration bans rocked companies and their employees across the country. And the unending storm in Washington has continued to keep Americans on edge.
All of this has put a vast new challenge at the feet of business leaders. How they respond could be crucial to maintaining the loyalty of their employees, cohesion in the workplace and positive performance for their companies in the days and weeks ahead. They’re going to have to handle it.
The first thing CEOs and other business leaders must do is recognize that these are truly extraordinary times. Trump’s stated mission is to upset the status quo, and he is carrying through on that. His first and even second plans to ban immigration from a handful of mostly Muslim countries created completely understandable anxieties in workplaces across the country.
Strategic CEOs will also now go out of their way to talk about the inclusiveness of their companies and work cultures. They should focus on positive messages about diversity of backgrounds but commonality of purpose in the workplace. CEO communications should be around promulgating the goals, objectives, issues and opportunities that bind people together and necessitate teamwork, collaboration, common desire to solve issues and moving forward with purpose.
And they can ensure and should highlight the values within a company in terms of respecting all people — including diversity of thought, background, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation — and always treating all people with respect and dignity, at the workplace and outside of it.
CEOs also have to reckon with a couple of other issues: speaking out, themselves, and encouraging employees to speak out. The chiefs who jumped on the bungled immigration ban, criticizing it on behalf of their companies and themselves, did the right as well as the natural thing. They needed to be responsive to what happened and to express their values, externally as well as internally, and to communicate positions that were in the best interest of their companies. Their employees should expect nothing less.
Leaders also should not discourage employees from expressing their own points of view in the workplace on political and social issues. And CEOs must help overcome the understandable fear many workers feel these days with assurances that they’re in a safe place at work, full of support. While the need for communicating with employees has always been great, now it must be heightened for that purpose.
No doubt the heightened political tensions at work, and political issues that directly involve so many companies these days, may be changing the old rules for the long term about how CEOs should handle this arena. Many chiefs are going to continue to feel compelled, for ethical or strategic reasons or both, to speak out as the immigration issue, for instance, persists or as new ones arise.
Yet they also must consider balancing what they view as an imperative to speak up with the main reason that people continue to come to the workplace: to get things done. Whether or not they have an impact on national political issues, CEOs’ primary responsibility is to make sure the company is focusing on the job at hand. Just to prevent the possibilities of daily or weekly distractions, they may not want to institutionalize a continual debate about whatever President Trump is doing at the moment.
Clearly, it will be a maelstrom in Washington for the next four or eight years, and there could be plenty to talk about. CEOs will have to decide what level of involvement in the dialogue is wisest for themselves and their companies.
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