David sounded tired. An energetic, fit man in his thirties, he seemed to have aged a decade in this past year. He is the head of a large company that provides products that are essential to millions of people around the globe. When Covid-19 started, he enacted rigid safety protocols and, after a short hiatus, kept his factories open.
We spoke first in the spring of 2020 as he worked through how to support his employees’ mental health through the pandemic and encourage their good citizenship in taking precautions to protect themselves and their co-workers.
He reached out again this spring as the virus continued to ravage his community and the strain of so many months of loss and crisis had begun to show.
Leading well through difficult times is not easy, but it’s crucial to the long-term success of your organization. When we are in crisis, we look to our institutions to support and protect us. Leaders who demonstrate care and provide tangible support when it’s needed create strong bonds of trust that lead to increased productivity and engagement, better communication, and loyalty that can last for decades. Here are a few tips on leading well when it matters most.
- Have Employee-Friendly Policies and Resources in Place
Communication is essential, of course, but no matter how well you communicate, your words will ring hollow if you don’t have policies and resources in place that are genuinely supportive of your employees.
Ensure that your human resources team is up to speed on the latest thinking on ways to take care of those in need within your workforce (leave for miscarriage? policies to protect victims of domestic violence? racially sensitive mental health benefits?).
No matter what position you hold in the organization, advocate for policies that are more humane to those who are struggling.
These policies can make the difference between those who can continue to work through life challenges and those who cannot. They also can affect trust, loyalty, and turnover. Lynn, an attorney, was a highly regarded specialist in her field when she learned that she had breast cancer. The chemotherapy she needed once a week was at a hospital near her house. The sessions were early in the morning, and afterward she was tired. She asked her supervisor if she could telework on treatment days rather than commute into the office. He refused, without explanation or any investigation into the options available. Unsurprisingly, she finished the chemotherapy, recovered, and within a year had found a new job. The organization had demonstrated that it did not support her when she needed it most; that mattered far more than any other benefit or compensation issue.
- Talk About It
Having the perfect policies and resources in place won’t matter much if the people who need them don’t know that they exist. Because we often don’t know who needs help, we need to broadcast the resources available widely. Look for opportunities to discuss them. You could even use this column as a starting point: “All, I recently read an article about supporting teams through challenging times. I know so many people in our organization have suffered during this past year. I wanted to make sure you know about some of the resources we have available.” The next step? Ensure that everyone in your organization who manages people knows about the resources and policies in place to protect them.
- Walk the Walk
As a leader, your actions will always speak louder than your words. It’s good to talk about the resources available and tell people how to access them. It’s even better to model that it’s okay to utilize those resources. Consider the difference between merely saying, “EAP is available to support you when you need it,” and following that sentence with, “I’ve used them myself and know that they’re fantastic.” People are more likely to believe that it’s okay to access supportive resources when you show them that successful people in the organization use those resources. The military calls modeling a healthy and appropriate response to a traumatic experience “grief leadership” and considers it an essential part of leading through crisis.
Kendall was the head of a large government agency. A long-time public servant, she was devastated by the Capitol Riots on January 6, 2021. It so happened that the day following the riots she was scheduled to lead a town hall meeting with all of her 8,000 employees. Instead of sticking to her agenda and gliding over the event, she addressed it head-on and in personal terms. She spoke movingly of the importance of government servants like themselves and how seeing the Capitol desecrated affected her. She even teared up a little. The response was an immediate outpouring of support and gratitude—instead of that moment tearing apart a workforce that already felt embattled, her leadership brought them together and gave them a new sense of purpose.
Demonstrating a healthy response to trauma doesn’t need to mean crying in a meeting, of course; merely acknowledging that you too have struggled can be incredibly powerful. You can make a world of difference with something as simple as, “I myself have been affected by the pandemic. I know how important it is that we take care of ourselves and each other right now.”
- Make Meaning
David had worked hard in the past year to lead with empathy. He showed up to each of his factories every week, listened to his employees’ struggles, and acknowledged them for all they had done and were going through. He created strong resources to support them when they needed it and made sure everyone knew what those resources were and how to access them. There was one more step, though: Teaching his employees to support one another.
We all need to feel needed. And David can’t be everywhere. We discussed ways to help the employees take care of each other. One idea is to create support groups for those who are caregivers of a sick relative, for working parents, for those attempting to keep healthy. Group projects, especially service projects, are a powerful way for teams to bond with one another and create meaning. In fact, volunteering has been shown to be effective in building empathy and connection.
This year has been difficult, but it’s not the last difficult year we’ll face. Learning to lead well through crisis will see us through this challenge, and whatever challenges come next.
* All names have been changed.
Written by Katharine Manning. Have you read?
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