How Leaders Can Protect Their People In An Imperfect World

Kelly Manthey, Global CEO – Kin + Carta.

Navigating a certain degree of unpredictability comes with the territory as a business leader. But what happens to your people when the world around them is in a state of constant flux?

Businesses now find themselves grappling with this exact situation. Today, I believe there is a sense that we live in an increasingly imperfect world, one in which socio-economic uncertainty is the only constant.

There’s little wonder as to why social benchmarks such as the latest Edelman Trust Barometer found that people trust businesses more than they trust governments. Work has become a pillar of stability where people can process the issues of the day and look to satisfy their emotional needs. This shift has seen greater demand from, and expectations of, the modern leader.

Leaders are now having to acknowledge that corporate social responsibility is not just an outward-facing initiative. Rather, CSR encompasses your people as much as it does the planet, and you owe it to your people to carve out spaces that are safe. Here’s how you can begin doing so in your business:

Acknowledge what’s happening.

One of the main expectations employees have of their employers—and CEOs—in this new world is to be aware of and acknowledge what’s happening in the environment around them, as well as to bring empathy for the impact on employees’ mental health and lives both inside and outside the workplace.

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Different people are affected differently and to varying degrees by what’s happening in the world. Acknowledgment should be visible and can come in many forms, such as a bold internal and external stance, a set of policy changes or commitments, or simply giving permission and creating the space for individuals to process in their own time and in their own way.

People are searching for consistency and credibility from their employers. It’s become increasingly important for leaders to be clear on what employees can expect and offer people a safe space to make up their own minds. And this is increasingly the role of the modern leader in this uncertain environment: to provide a haven for affinity groups to feel welcome, have the freedom to organize and be a source of education and support.

When do you speak up?

In the past, businesses could be accused of overstepping the mark by getting so involved in the personal lives of employees and by speaking up on broader societal issues. But at this point in time, I’m finding there is a gap caused by global uncertainty, so offering both stability and clarity makes for better businesses all around.

By the same token, though, it’s not necessary to make corporate announcements about every single issue that crops up. Another growing element of modern leadership is developing the antennae that help tread the fine line between taking a corporate stance on socio-political issues and knowing when to hold back so employees have the space to deal with issues on their own terms.

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If leaders don’t say anything, people might assume there is a lack of awareness or understanding. This means leaders first need to understand for themselves and then acknowledge before deciding what action is appropriate while still remaining true to their company’s DNA and values system.

That last point is important because company culture is another rock for people to cling to in choppy waters, so any statement or response has to come from a corporate environment that fits it. Statements or actions that are not congruent with the values of the business might seem out of place and only lead to further confusion.

Brush up your people policies.

Decisive and responsive communications and policies can also quickly allay fear within the workforce and protect people in a fast-moving societal environment. Clearly making your position and policies known are the hallmarks of responsible leadership.

For example, a global transitioning policy at my company helps employees outline who they would like to know about their transition among colleagues and clients, how they would like them to be told and who they would like to manage client communication. It also gives guidance on things like building an action plan and updating workplace records. In addition, our travel for medical care policy covers travel costs for employees and their families who need to travel for non-routine medical care.

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You don’t need all the answers straight away.

Leaders are human, too. They need time to process what’s happening to the world around them, and they need some time and space to work out the best approach.

There might, therefore, be silence at the beginning, as it takes time to be authentic and thoughtful and do the right thing, rather than just offering a canned response. People expect considered eloquence, but that’s not something you achieve off the cuff.

The changing world is also creating an equally dramatic shift in the skillset of leadership. I’ve had conversations with many people in boardrooms who are thinking they “didn’t sign up for this.” In the past, leaders might have been able to just talk about work and ignore what was happening outside the office, and leadership might have been able to skew toward numbers and finances rather than deal with highly-sensitive personal issues and geo-political savvy. That is no longer the case.

But it’s also an opportunity. If leaders take the time to ensure their responses are considered, reasonable and fit the company culture, they can know when to speak up, when to change their policies and how to protect their employees from the vicissitudes of the world around them. Then they can ensure they’re building better, stronger, future-proofed organizations.

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