I hear this phrase repeated by virtually every political and business leader. To people who are not in positions of power, the phrase can be intimidating. The word “unprecedented” is defined as “never been done before or known before.” It implies to those you are trying to lead that you’re not quite sure what to do—when in fact, you do. Leaders lead through the known and unknown all the time. They do it confidently and with clarity. More than that, they do it compassionately.
During times of uncertainty, employees are looking for their leaders to set the tone. They need to know their leaders have their backs. They need to feel inspired and motivated to navigate the storm. They need to trust that their leaders are beside them every step of the way. And trust is built through transparency.
Leading with compassion means having the courage to quickly and succinctly communicate good and bad news, and the latter must happen with just the right amount of optimism. We see leaders every day do this really well. Most recently, Queen Elizabeth addressed the British public and commonwealth. Her broadcast was heartfelt, uplifting and pragmatic. She acknowledged the challenges we all face yet appealed to our better natures. She comforted and inspired not just England but people around the globe.
However, we also continue to see political leaders get this wrong, the outcomes of which send people into panic. They are left confused and afraid, unsure of which direction to turn. Imagine what would happen to a company if a business leader failed to lead in the right ways during the crisis that we find ourselves in today. The consequences would be swift and impact your employees and clients alike, increasing the burdens left behind by coronavirus. This would not be a good place to be.
Communicating with a Diverse Workforce
I am the CEO of a company with a unique workforce. Seventy percent of our employees are incarcerated. The remaining 30 percent are either remote or work in offices located in Phoenix, AZ; Cordoba, Argentina; and Glasgow, Scotland. As you can imagine, we are quite adept at creating contingency plans for just about any possible scenario. Our clients and employees are counting on us to keep business moving forward and meeting this expectation is our normal.
Given the diversity of our workforce, we have employees who are struggling from a lack of information because they are in prison and employees who are struggling because of too much information. This has meant getting in front of them often to not only provide business updates but to ensure that the information they are receiving is accurate. In the absence of too little information, people will believe anything they hear. And in an environment where information flows constantly, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction because people become overwhelmed.
ABCs of Navigating Crises Compassionately
For our team, this is the biggest crisis we’ve faced together as an organization. It’s been as much a learning experience for them as it is for our leadership team. What’s getting us through it is a strong commitment to the ABCs of compassionate leadership.
Simply, we support our teams, recognize the importance and uniqueness of every individual, and lead only with positive emotions while embracing the following:
• Adapt. Key to compassionate leadership is being willing to adapt to external pressures facing our people and our business. In order to do this well, we have to accept any change as positive. For example, like most businesses today, we’ve had to mobilize our workforce to go from the office to remote in a very short timeframe. About 40 percent of our non-incarcerated workforce has never worked from home before and some lack the structure and support outside the office.
We made the decision to keep our office open for those employees who require an office environment in order to perform their jobs. As the number of employees in the office is very low, we are able to ensure physical distancing and keep them safe. We’ve also asked our managers to lean in more to their teams to ensure they are emotionally and mentally navigating the changing waters. We’ve found that these proactive outreaches let our employees know that their health and well-being is top of mind for us. And when employees experience this in both words and actions from the top down, they feel supported and it’s the fuel they need to thrive in any environment.
Finally, leaders must be willing to revise plans, as needed. During this time of heightened fluidity in our financial markets and the world, revising plans might need to happen daily. This is OK. There is no one playbook for dealing with this crisis. Remember, people make decisions, not plans. The more flexible you can be, the more flexible your employees will be.
• Balance. For most of the working world, there have always been clear delineations between work, school and life. In a mere couple of days, it’s all been merged together…under one dwelling…and without social outlets. This is a massive shift. Employees need support.
Encourage flexible hours and occasional mental health days. Inside our engagement centers, we began to track call volume and found that mornings were highest. In the mid-afternoon, volume decreased dramatically, which meant we could relieve employees of some of their professionals duties. This, as you’d imagine, has been very well-received particularly by parents who also have to home-school their children.
You also want to ensure your teams are connected to employee assistance programs and community resources, if available. These tools will not only help them navigate emotional and financial stressors but can help them find their new normal and incorporate balance so that they aren’t overwhelmed.
Three Cs: Calm, Clarity, Communicate
The most important trait to display during crisis is calm. Recognize and be okay with the fact that you will never have every answer. But you can always listen; relate to employees’ fears, uncertainty and doubts; and be a voice of reason. By doing this, you make it clear that there is no difference between them and you. This creates a culture of trust. You become a lifeline for employees.
Help your team see the big picture. Every day, employees are being inundated by news and opinion through radio, social media and TV – we all are. It can be overwhelming. Acknowledge the unique challenges of this situation but focus on the future so there is a light guiding them forward.
At my company, we’ve shifted from quarterly all-employee meetings to weekly. We use this time to update employees on the actions we’ve taken or plan to take, share positive internal and external news, and take questions. This helps our leadership team understand the unique challenges our teams are facing—personally and professionally—while giving us a chance to celebrate their human spirit and resolve. Most important, we leave every meeting on the same page.
We also take turns sending weekly emails that address a leadership theme, a topic that impacts our company as a whole, or to share growth tips from personal anecdotes. Our employees look forward to these notes as they are learning more about their leaders and themselves.
The bottom line: During unpredictable times, leaders need to be present. Strong, calm, trustworthy, they need to share information quickly and always do it compassionately and optimistically.
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented compassion. It is the most important currency you have in this crisis. Hang on to it with everything you’ve got and ensure every leader in your company does too. For this is the only thing that will deliver what you need: stability, hope and a path forward. It will ensure the health and wellbeing of your workforce and your business long after coronavirus is in the rearview mirror.