According to a national survey by Keystone Partners, “nearly one third of American workers feel senior management is out of touch with the impact of COVID-19 on employees’ daily lives. Similarly, about one-quarter of the American workforce feels that senior management lacks compassion and affinity and approximately one-third of workers feel disrespected or treated unfairly.”
At first blush, those numbers may appear dismal. But we’d guess that they are an improvement upon pre-Covid employee sentiments about leadership. The reality is that senior management was out of touch with its employees’ daily lives long before Covid-19. And the majority of those surveyed by Keystone didn’t share the negative feelings toward senior leaders.
Let’s look at previous studies for comparison.
The truth is that more leaders have gotten better at empathy, transparency, and authentic connection with employees since the pandemic started. Their challenge now isn’t to improve upon the numbers cited by Keystone - it’s to sustain them once the pandemic is over.
The pandemic has forced many leaders to change their style
As we’ve spoken to leaders throughout the pandemic, we’ve noticed that a new style and tone of leadership has come to the fore. For example, in the early months, Sharon Callahan, Chief Client Officer at Omnicom Health Group, told us that employees were demanding brutal honesty from leaders, and that few leaders were “accustomed to addressing people’s fears” and operating with “this level of aggressive transparency”. More recently, 3M’s John Banovetz told us: “I've been much more thoughtful about authenticity and transparency. As a scientist, I've said ‘I don't know’ and ‘I think’ more than ever. I don't have all the answers and I have to reflect that to my teams. A lot of it comes down to being authentic and building that trust with them. I’ve had more heart-to-heart conversations with my team than ever.”
Callahan and Banovetz were far from alone in commenting on this shift. Last October, we compiled a list of ten notable qualities people had observed in leaders who had done a good job navigating the pandemic - including being empathetic, forthcoming, and inclusive.
According to Keynote’s survey, only a minority of employees think their leaders lack these qualities. While we should hope that even fewer people feel this way, let’s celebrate the shift that so many more have noticed.
The question isn’t how do we improve on the numbers in the Keynote survey; the question is how do we sustain them?
Circumstances have forced more leaders to adopt these characteristics. Leaders have been in more frequent ‘face-to-face’ interactions with people, shared the experience of being stuck at home and uncertain about what happens next, opened up their homes for all to see, and helped their people and their colleagues through mental health challenges that for once couldn’t be ignored. After a year, many leaders have become quite good at being more in touch, empathetic, transparent and available than they were before. People who got used to leaders who are available, frank, caring, and clear will expect those behaviors to continue. The bar has been raised, and leaders must continue to raise their game.
But when we return to the office, there is a big risk that leaders will return to business as usual - and drop the empathetic leadership style employees have come to appreciate - and expect. Soon, organizations will be able to take on hybrid work models that include opportunities for employees to work from home at some times, and to work together in one place at other times. Google is pursuing hybrid work models and it’s likely you will be too.
What will happen to these new leadership traits? Will senior leadership return to the proverbial 40th floor executive suite, the corner office, the big comfortable chair and oaken desk, the walkabouts and fireside chats that are supposed to make people feel like they’re getting personal attention, albeit with hundreds of others present? Will managers reach out every day and ask people how they are doing? Will they be genuinely attuned to the ups and downs of employees’ daily lives? Will they say “I don’t know” as readily? Will they care as much?
A return to the office could easily be a return to the traditional trappings of leadership and the old playbook. Don’t let that happen.
Make the explicit effort to set the bar higher.
Make humility, open-mindedness, inclusiveness, presence, transparency, and empathy table stakes for all leaders. Put those qualities into leaders’ objectives and tie their performance incentives to whether or not their staff think they’re living up to those standards. Expect those qualities from your new leaders and insist on them in your hiring and promotion processes.
Sustain the cadence of check-ins and communication that were necessary this past year. Continue to care, to be in touch, to ask people how they’re doing. These aren’t just crisis leadership skills - they’re timeless qualities that we should demand of leaders all the time.
It shouldn’t have taken a global crisis to get the best out of our leaders, but it did. As we move out of that crisis, let’s not let them off the hook. Otherwise, two or three years from now we’re going to be looking back at Keystone’s February 2021 numbers as a blip and a high-water mark for leadership.
Original article posted on Forbes on March 15, 2021
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