Making decisions in a crisis may feel like one arm is tied behind your back. Whether you head one direction or another, the anticipated results are full of challenges.
Compassion is key to moving your people forward and promoting organizational health.
What does it look like when you don’t have all the answers?
I help leaders to lead change. Most typically, leaders call me when they are ready to grow, develop new leadership talent for succession, expand into new markets, or transition through a merger or acquisition. Leading and managing at such critical change points can make or break an organization.
COVID-19, however, is one of those change points that takes us by surprise and has turned the business landscape upside down. Such a cataclysmic event requires all the fortitude, competency, and character of a leader to move through such devastation.
At such a time as this, compassion rises up to be most important.
Compassion is perhaps the most misunderstood characteristic of leading from the heart. Many interpret this to be “touchy-feely,” or devoid of backbone. Yet, compassion is perhaps the strongest trait that a leader can embody.
What does compassion look like in a crisis?
Following are three conversations I have had with leaders in the past few weeks. I’ve protected their identity through slight changes in the profiles.
Containment is more important than reinforcing vision.
“Our people seem to be doing pretty well,” said the CEO. “They are adjusting to working from home and finding creative ways to connect with each other during the pandemic.”
“Well, you can thank yourself and the leadership team for that,” I replied. “I just talked with one of your directors who said you all have made a great difference. He said your president assured everyone that the company was on solid ground. You have been sending personal notes of acknowledgment and encouragement. Your entire team has expanded the “open door” policy to holding virtual “kitchen time” hours so that people to drop in and say hello to you.
“What you are doing is containing or ‘holding,’” I said. “Containing people’s emotions and showing them that you are shouldering with them is key to helping them move forward together. On the other hand, some of your peers are not doing this.”
“What’s happening there?” the CEO inquired.
“We are sadly seeing a lot of anxiety and fragmentation,” I answered. “It turns out that painting a brighter future isn’t effective when your people don’t feel held with empathy and compassion in the moment.”
Asking questions before making judgments yields better results.
“I’m frustrated,” said the president of another company. “We could move a lot faster, but I’m finding people are not performing the way they could. Granted, we are in strange circumstances, but I’m not getting results.”
“Let’s get one of your managers on the phone with us,” I suggested. “You and she have always been able to troubleshoot together, and I’m sensing we need to dive deeper here.”
A 20-minute 3-way call proved to be revealing. After probing deeper in a couple of key areas, we discovered that although the company’s systems supported this crisis environment, protocols and processes had not been ironed out. Conflict was on the rise, and as a result, productivity was very low. The president called an emergency executive team meeting to help troubleshoot this. Two weeks later, productivity has risen quickly even though people are still working from home.
I debriefed last week with the president. “So, what lessons are you learning from your COVID experience?” I asked.
“Well, Patti, I’m learning that I should ask more questions before I make judgments,” the president answered. “I can’t believe I didn’t dive into the productivity challenge more deeply before talking with you.”
“We most often revert to ‘fire-fighting mode’ when crisis hits,” I said. “And leaders and their teams sometimes have to put out big fires quickly, so let yourself off the hook here. But asking questions before judging is key. Great learning.”
Making business decisions that support the company will best support its people.
Emotions and tensions are high. Executive team members have been working around the clock to cut costs as they incur big losses. Part of the emergency measures can involve layoffs and furloughs, and this is always devastating. Each life involved has a family and livelihood tied to it. And it is in this kind of scenario where compassion may look like ruthlessness.
“The executive team decided 5 week ago that we need to lay off 50 employees,” the CMO shared. “We have cut the budget by 40% and need to cut more in order for the business to stay afloat. We’ve even taken pay cuts at the executive level. But we are going to have to eliminate positions or keep ourselves in extreme jeopardy.”
“I’m so sorry to hear this,” I responded. “Layoffs are always so very sad. But what’s holding you back? It’s been 5 weeks since you made the decision. We are in tough times right now.”
“Truthfully, some of us just can’t face laying off our people,” the CMO answered. “We keep hoping an alternative will emerge.”
“Sounds tough,” I agreed. “But you know a miracle isn’t going to pop up. Allow me to help you reframe this. If you don’t effectuate the layoffs, it will hurt the company. If the company is in jeopardy because you aren’t making the cuts, then this places the rest of your employee base at risk. Right?”
“I guess so,” the CMO said. “Yes, you are right. If we don’t make these cuts, there will be no jobs for anyone.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Deferring to the business case, as strange as it sounds, is the highest expression of compassion. Making emotional decisions for a few at the expense of many is unwittingly destructive.”
“It helps to process with you,” the CMO said. “It’s still hard.”
“Yes, it’s still really hard,” I answered. “I’m sorry you and the team are having to do this. Just keep in front of you the people you are helping to keep afloat by supporting the solvency of the business. It doesn’t fix that hard situations often call for tough choices.”
Exercising compassion in your leadership when facing crisis isn’t always easily detected to the outsider.
In fact, it can seem quite the opposite. It can give the idea to some observing that you aren’t coming up with quick answers when in fact, you are allaying the fears and concerns that otherwise keep your people paralyzed. It can seem to those not involved that you aren’t taking quick action when you are simply asking critical questions first in order to make best decisions. It may even appear ruthless to some when you are really supporting the fate of many.
It is now that the courage to exercise strong compassion is paramount.
“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.” — Douglas MacArthur
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Patti Cotton helps executives optimize their effectiveness in leading self, others, and the enterprise. Her areas of focus include confidence, leadership style, executive presence, effective communication, succession planning, and masterful execution. With over 25 years of leadership experience, both stateside and abroad, Patti works with individuals, teams, and organizations across industries, providing executive consulting, leadership development, succession planning, change management, and conflict resolution. She is also an experienced Fortune 500 speaker. For more information on how Patti Cotton can help you and your organization, click here.