by Gael O’Brien

In big, unexpected disruptions like COVID-19 that hijack sales, torpedo profits and threaten lives, leaders pivot to crisis management. Nonetheless, the emotional fallout in dealing with this crisis can’t be underestimated. The already high levels of workplace loneliness, which I’ve recently written about here, make disruption’s impact more intense.

We know that last year a significant percentage of employees reported feeling disconnected from their company– not feeling known, heard or supported. This raises the likelihood that many leaders at all levels have been overconfident about their people skills, empathy quotient and other “soft skills.”  Qualities that are needed now more than ever. The personal and the professional are totally entwined in COVID-19. It hits survival fears for health, job, company, family, commerce and the world as we know it.

Crisis recovery depends on leaders operating out of their own humanity to build greater connection and sense of shared purpose in their companies. These efforts impact the capacity for trust, engagement and the potential for collaboration and innovation. While in a crisis, some organizations can do more financially for employees than others, every leader can find ways to demonstrate genuine caring and support. We’ll look at ways to support that happening.

Leaders’ challenge: making communication personal

Different kinds of communication are necessary throughout a crisis. Each message and the tone in which it’s delivered determines impact and degree of connection. It’s also about being willing to be vulnerable.

In Dare to Lead, researcher Brene Brown defines vulnerability as having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome. That is the challenge for leaders now. However, the opportunity gained by showing up “real” to employees, even when it’s bad news, can lead to creating a spirit of solidarity. Brown’s research indicates vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.

Marriott International President and CEO Arne Sorenson recently shared tough-to-hear facts in a video message to employees about COVID-19’s impact on the company. Furloughs are among the many steps outlined to address steep revenue decline. However, his message also conveyed resilience: His own – as he’s being treated for stage 2 pancreatic cancer – and the company’s supported by its 92-year legacy and core values. His video illustrated that vulnerability isn’t weakness. The tone he set is a jumping off place for follow-up communications from other company leaders, HR teams and managers.

Ways of reaching out

The degree and length of disruption will be different for each company, their employees and other stakeholders. The unknowns, fears and economic consequences make ongoing personal communication – in addition to regular and crisis communication — vital. Depending on how a company’s culture is actually experienced by employees, this will be easier or harder. However, building a stronger sense of connection with employees during the current upheaval can impact how the company recovers.

Employees need to feel heard, appreciated, supported, and that they’re a part of something that matters. This is true anytime, but especially now whether employees work on-site or remotely. Those who’ve been furloughed can’t be forgotten either. Some ideas include:

• CEOs conveying more frequently messages about the spirit of the company, its purpose, how values are showing up and ways challenges are being tackled. Available tools like videos, online meetings, blogs or podcasts can increase employee awareness and invite their feedback;
• C-Suite leaders working with direct reports to identify effective ways to provide and cascade emotional support for employees. This helps bolster managers and supervisors in front-line roles. It’s the small personal gestures that matter, like reaching out to ask how an employee is doing, listening, caring and offering emotional or technical support. It makes it easier to help resolve work-related problems crises create; and
• Teaming supervisors with leaders known for their people skills. They can become mentors for this crisis and beyond, sharing stories of how past challenges were overcome and ways to encourage a spirit of community.

Actions turn intentions into reality Some examples of what companies say they’ll do to support employees.

• Some CEOs will forgo full or partial compensation during the COVID-19 crisis.
Just Capital  has tracked how large employers are treating employees during the crisis. Target is on that list and plans to fund a new paid leave program and relief fund to support employees during the crisis.
• The Marriott video indicates: employee healthcare benefits will continue during furloughs; top executives will forgo salaries or take 50% pay cuts until 2021; and the company website invites members enrolled in the Marriott loyalty points program to donate points to support affected employees.

Actions can change outcomes. COVID-19 creates unmistakable risks. However, for leaders who know the power of teams, the crisis compels acting now to build stronger relationships with employees. It can fuel a faster recovery and more resilient culture.

Gael O’Brien is a catalyst in leaders leading with purpose and impact through clarity, presence and connection. She is an executive coach, culture coach, speech coach and presenter. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is also a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University, and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute at Babson College.


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