The coronavirus pandemic has sent shockwaves rippling across the globe, infiltrating nearly every aspect of our personal and professional lives.
In response to the global pandemic, Kotter’s COVID-19 Study of 850 respondents revealed that less than a third of respondents believe their organization will come out stronger after COVID-19 compared with the market, with top-level executives exhibiting more confidence than mid- to junior-level employees.
Compared to top-level executives, significantly fewer junior employees agree that their organization empathizes with their current situation. The gap widens further around transparency, with only six in 10 junior employees agreeing that their organization is transparent about COVID-19’s potential impact on the business.
This begs an important question—how can leaders close those gaps and build trust with employees in this uncertain time?
Here are three avenues to address the transparency and empathy gaps:
Create Opportunities for Connection
In a predominantly virtual workplace, executives and employees alike are losing informal opportunities to connect with one another. Without a water cooler to spur sidebar conversations, it can be easy to fall out of touch with virtual peers, and even easier to fall out of touch with more distant—yet equally, if not more valuable—relationships. Executives may find themselves in a position where they are only talking among themselves, yet cross-organizational communication is critical to cultivating and sustaining a culture rooted in openness, inclusivity and compassion. Such cultures are a key success factor in an organization’s ability to respond to sudden, complex changes in the external environment.
Despite the limitations caused by the pandemic, informal conversations are both possible and critical to ensuring all voices feel heard—especially during a period of social unrest when emotions and uncertainty are heightened. For executives, reducing the barriers to conversation is key to promoting informal interactions. Often, junior-level employees look at an executive and only see the title and not the person. Executives must humanize themselves to combat this natural reaction.
1:1 connections. Reaching out to junior staff for quick, informal chats—even if just a few minutes—can help leaders build relationships with on-the-ground workers and shine a light on what feelings might be festering in employees’ minds. This could include health anxieties that could hinder morale, work/life balance challenges that could strain company culture and financial concerns that could distract workers and decrease productivity. Simply asking employees how they feel and validating those feelings can be a powerful exercise; it has been scientifically proven to reduce the raw intensity of an emotion by helping to bridge the gap between thoughts and feelings and by reminding us that emotions are temporary. Working with employees to identify those feelings and soothe anxieties can help alleviate fear of the unknown and unite the workforce in an isolating time.
Group connections. Holding virtual town halls, creating virtual small group meetings or sending out a short HR survey are other ways that executives can get a snapshot of where the organization stands from a psychological perspective. Are employees feeling stressed, worried, confused? What questions do they have? What actions could leaders take to help soothe employees’ “survive” response and help them to thrive? At Kotter, we also use network analysis to understand social influencers and support networks. Leaders can then provide more opportunities for these informal influencers to bring increased stability and calm, as well as make sure that employees are able to find the emotional support they need in these challenging times.
Our memory is shaped by the peaks and troughs of our lives—we remember the moments in which our emotions were in a heightened state, either positively or negatively. We, therefore, hold onto moments when leaders show up as calm and courageous—thereby lifting us up—or don’t, and instead exhibit silence and secrecy. If executives fail to communicate to their people in an uncertain time, employees can latch onto that feeling of abandonment and look for more evidence to support their theory of an absent leader. An absent leader will never be given the chance to be empathetic—which requires that employees tell them what they are experiencing.
But what if executives don’t have the answers? What if the future is so uncertain that offering any next steps would be purely guesswork?
In times of turmoil, leaders must actively seek out opportunities to communicate with employees, even if the only message they share is, “We don’t know, but we will figure it out together.” Being vulnerable and saying, “I don’t know,” is an act of bravery in itself and engenders trust with all titles and levels. Opening the door by saying, “We’ll figure it out together,” builds a sense of belonging and encourages employees to step up and share ideas for how the company can move through the uncertainty together. In our experience, we have found this approach often yields increased engagement scores and outsized financial returns.
Rather than seeking concrete answers in a turbulent time, what people are often looking for is a process. Employees want to make sense of the world. They don’t want to be told the sense. They want to co-create it with their leaders, who can shepherd that process.
Airbnb’s letter to employees in response to the firm’s layoffs is a great example of how to thoughtfully communicate in a time of emotional upheaval. Through his message to the company, CEO Brian Chesky addressed those staying and those leaving separately, laying out clear processes for each group and driving home the key message—this is not your fault—in both words and in the many avenues Airbnb created to help exiting employees land on their feet.
This taps into the root of empowerment. If leaders teach employees how to make sense of the world and how to make decisions based on that new understanding, their business can expand exponentially, since they have cultivated a workforce that can both draw order from chaos and use that knowledge to innovate, solve problems and carve a path forward.
Empathy will be crucial to navigating the COVID-19 crisis, and the first step to empathy is asking questions.
Rather than simply going through the motions and asking blanket questions without the intent to truly hear and absorb the answers, executives with empathy approach conversations with a genuine interest in understanding employees’ points of view and using those opinions to shift their approach to leadership.
This curiosity in a time of crisis is hard because seeking new information could shatter our safe and dependable viewpoints. Yet it creates more space for new perspectives and can soothe typical responses to change—such as denial, anxiety and fear—by offering excitement and interest. Rather than saying, “I have to ask these questions,” leaders can shift their perspective by internally saying, “What might I learn by asking these questions?” Curiosity creates wiggle room so challenges or changes are not seen in such rigid terms. Instead, there’s room for growth and transformation.
On a deep level, leaders across the globe may be starting to wake up to the fact that there is—and will always be—a new normal. The world is changing, and it’s going to keep on changing. Change is the only constant on which we can depend. Therefore, being open and transparent with employees, carving out time to connect with the workforce and leveraging curiosity to embrace the unknown and rest in the uncertainty will be critical for leaders to help their organizations thrive in the months to come.
For more information about Kotter’s COVID-19 Study, click HERE.