Business leaders have never faced anything quite like the coronavirus crisis. Collapsing revenues have magnified conventional business problems, but the pandemic is also straining emotional muscles many executives never flex at work.
Employees are experiencing sorrow over loss of loved ones, opportunities and savings. Many grieve the loss of a way of life that they fear is forever gone. For the first time, business leaders find themselves in the unusual role of Comforter-in-Chief.
Some may argue that political and religious authorities are better suited to the role of comforter. In the past, when productivity was primarily based on routine procedures, it wasn’t as costly for business leaders to ignore employees’ emotional needs.
But in today’s uncertainty, executives have to empower their employees to imagine, experiment, and take initiative if their organizations are to survive. Leadership sets the tone and creates the environment for psychological safety, which in turn gives employees the confidence to challenge conventional thinking and take strategic risks.
So how can business leaders begin to approach this new role? Here are four ways, informed by conversations I’ve had recently as head of a leadership center at Duke University and as an advisor to chief executives.
Lean into your discomfort.
Take time to feel the ebb and flow of emotions—some of which you can’t yet name—and reflect on them. Your willingness to feel that discomfort and be vulnerable are key to your capacity to connect. You can’t be an effective comforter unless you understand what it’s like to need comfort and be comforted.
Avoid the problem-solving mindset.
A fix-it attitude can’t produce words of comfort. Grief is not fixable. Rather, as Edith Cooper, who helped lead Goldman Sachs through the 2008 financial crisis as its head of human capital, tells me, “It’s about listening. It’s about reaching out and letting them know that you were thinking of them and then give them the space to talk about their grief.“
Build trust through touchstone memories.
Have you encouraged and shown care so that when you reach out now, your presence can lift? And in making the tough decisions for the survival of the organization, do employees trust that you are doing it with greatest compassion? So, what happens if you are new to the team? Trust is built in moments, and it’s never too early nor too late to create those memories. Create opportunities for celebrations so that your presence becomes a touchstone of better times past and a reminder of better days forward.
Create a “battle rhythm” of communications.
During World War II, King George VI’s regular addresses and President Franklin Roosevelt’s weekly fireside chats assuaged their grieving nations and inspired hope. Currently, leaders from startups to major corporations have taken to pen or video to share their personal reflections and work through their own feelings. Regular authentic communications are a source of assurance.
Now that business leaders’ work and family lives have become inextricably intertwined, success demands that they first show up as human beings before they show up as executives. That is the heart of being a Comforter-in-Chief.