Deeper emotional connection for fresher perspectives

How great leaders make everyone feel like they matter

Covid and the long periods of lockdown have taken their toll on so many of us. Stuck at home in front of a screen, we can feel like we are “always on” and that the boundaries between work and home have blurred. Informal conversations, laughs and human interaction about more personal matters just can’t happen as easily when we aren’t able to meet in person – for example, at the water cooler or in the canteen.

This can leave us feeling overwhelmed by the workload and disconnected from our colleagues. Many of us have been cut off for a long time now from that human, visceral way of interacting with others that gives us a sense of belonging. It’s also harder to detect that something is wrong with our teammates when we aren’t physically together in the same space.

Women have been particularly negatively affected by the Covid-19 crisis, because they are still the ones who generally have the majority of the burden of childcare, household chores and caring for elderly relatives. The figures are alarming! The 2020 Women in the Workplace Study done with more than 40,000 employees (by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org) gives us the context, statistics and consequences for the US:

“1 in 4 women are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable less than a year ago: downshifting or leaving the workforce.

This is a critical moment for corporate America. Companies risk losing women in leadership – and future women leaders – and unwinding years of painstaking progress towards gender diversity”

Picture of a woman with too much to do.

Senior level women are “1.5 times more likely than senior-level men to think about downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce because of Covid-19” and “almost 3 in 4 cite burnout as the main reason”. Due to unconscious bias, women are often held to higher performance standards than men, so face more pressure at work as well as more responsibility for keeping everything running at home. It’s unsustainable. Something has to give. At breaking point women will often sacrifice their career to focus on the people they care about. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Great leaders know the value of a “people-first” approach, especially in times of crisis. Now more than ever leaders need to pay attention to what’s really going on with their team members, beyond what is officially or openly said. Even if in some countries, we are starting to see a return to the workplace, the hybrid workplace will remain and the after-effects of Covid-induced stress are clearly having a big impact on mental health.

Here are my thoughts on how great leaders can make a difference in these difficult times of overwhelm and disconnection.

An elephant and a dog sitting on a bench, in the rain, on a beach. The elephant is sheltering the dog with an umbrella.

1. They care about people first and take a real interest in them

I love what Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.

It’s difficult to stay engaged with a task or a job under pressure when those you are working with don’t seem to care about who you are and what you might be going through, especially in times like these. And it means so much when someone genuinely seems to care about you and see you beyond the tasks you’re completing.
As an employee, you might not want to openly discuss what’s going on for fear of being seen as “weak”. You soldier on through and put on a brave face. If no-one asks, no-one will know the real story. In times of remote working, the likelihood of employees feeling disconnected – like no-one really cares or has their back – is much greater.

From what I’ve read about Joe Biden, everyone seems to agree – even those who competed against him – that he is a genuinely decent, caring human being who makes others feel seen, no matter what their rank or station in life. A story illustrating his humanity touched me greatly and reminded me that when you are led by your values, it’s not what others see, it’s who you are that determines your actions.

A Twitter post by Paul Equale showing a photo of Joe Biden talking to a homeless man (without knowing he is being filmed).

A true leader will make everyone he/she interacts with feel like they matter. They will create the safe space for people to bring their whole selves to work and let them talk about what matters to them. When there is space for whole-hearted openness, there is space for creative solutions and re-engagement, even when times are tough.

The person becomes more important than the problem because leaders know that when we care about people, we can solve problems and increase motivation. So in times of Covid, lockdown and remote working, it means checking in on a one-to-one basis with open questions and active listening to find out what’s really going on, behind the computer screen, behind the mask. Sometimes this requires being vulnerable enough to show one’s own whole self to get the other person to feel safe enough to open up about their potential struggles.

If working conditions have completely changed, perhaps performance review criteria should be reassessed. If team members used to be high performers but are now missing their targets, perhaps it’s time to create individual, flexible solutions to stop them from quitting completely. If you as a leader don’t have the time or the skills to deal with the feelings of overwhelm (especially if on probing, the employee seems close to burnout), a coach can help your team member overcome these blocks and access their power again. When we support rather than punish, we can help others rise to new heights and everyone wins.

A drawing of a woman sitting at her desk, looking at a large silhouette of herself as Super Woman on the wall.

2. They start from the inside out, focusing on purpose and potential

I was recently inspired by the Forbes article with Unilever HR leader Leena Nair (“How Unilever develops leaders to be a force for good”, June 8, 2021) about the way the company believes in training “the inner game” – the sense of purpose and resilience – so that people have the flexibility to deal with whatever comes their way in the moment – as needed, which is so important, especially in these times of rapid change. The “outer game” is defined as the passion for high performance, business acumen and results orientation. As Nair says, “the inner game is what fuels the outer game”. I was impressed to hear that all 150,000 people at the company are going through workshops to discover their purpose. It’s exciting to imagine a company where everyone knows why they are doing what they are doing, driven from the inside out. It must ignite a whole new energy in a way that a leadership team purpose statement hanging in the hallway never could!

A great leader understands that each person has something unique to contribute and people truly flourish when they understand and live their why – and are in a job that is meaningful to them. When people understand the importance of what they are doing, it changes how they see themselves and their role. Internal motivation through a strong why is a much stronger predictor of effort (and success) than external rewards!

A drawing of six hospital workers. Three of them are shaded as black and white, whilst the other three are in colour.

This is beautifully illustrated by a research study (published in the Journal of Hospital Administration in 2015 – Vol 4 No. 1). They start from the inside out, focusing on purpose and potential*) with hospital cleaning staff. The study results showed that the staff split into two distinct groups – those who found the job low-paid and distasteful, not putting effort into their work, and those who felt their job was important because they felt they played a key part in helping patients get well. The purpose-driven group took pride in their work, communicated more with those around them and happily took on additional tasks, which resulted in better outcomes.

It’s interesting to see the impactful role that purpose can play – even for so-called “menial” jobs. Another inside-out approach understood by great leaders is looking for potential despite lack of evidence, understanding that sometimes the right person is in the wrong job. I have a personal story to illustrate an inspiring leader’s ability to focus on my potential and who I was as a person rather than judge me on pure performance.

A woman behind a stack of books and paper work, which look like they have been blown into the air.

Let me explain. In 1995 I spent a short time at a job that made me miserable, partly because I was particularly bad at most of the tasks I was given to do (number-crunching, admin etc.) and partly because I couldn’t see the point of a lot of what I was asked to do. To be honest, due to the lack of aptitude and enthusiasm on my part, I was a pretty dreadful employee while I was there! So you can imagine my surprise when almost 20 years later, my former boss, the marketing director, Fritz Grünefeld, contacted me to help him with a lovely strategy workshop project – absolutely my passion and expertise! I will always appreciate the faith he had in me and his ability to consider that perhaps the job-fit rather than the person was responsible for the poor performance, and for remembering that even 20 years later. Talk about a leader making someone feel like they are being seen!

So, great leaders understand how to bring out the best in people by uncovering “internal” motivators such as purpose and passion. They also know how to be flexible enough to see beyond the CV and take a chance on somebody for certain roles based on internal passion and “human” strengths rather than experience in the field and the right technical knowledge, especially in management roles. They trust their own instinct and humanity over the “hard facts”, understanding that what’s on the inside matters more than what’s visible on paper or to others on the outside.

Drawing of text: Diversity is a fact. Inclusion is an act

3. They take action on diversity and inclusivity

We know from the research that when effective diversity strategies are in place and employees feel like there are equal opportunities for all to learn and grow, engagement increases (McKinsey Women Matter / Time to accelerate 2017). A true leader makes a real effort to find out what he or she can do to make this happen.

Last week I watched an interview with Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer at P&G, hosted by the Institute for Real Growth, and I was impressed by his calm wisdom and human-centered approach. Like Leena Nair at Unilever, he also voiced that business will be the greatest force for good and that brands must take a stand for causes such as the environment and gender equality.

In terms of communication strategy, he realised that the portrayal of women and the tagline itself in the Easy Breezy Covergirl ads needed to be changed if he wanted the world to be different for his daughters. And indeed, many of the more recent ads for P&G brands have been championing women with the Always “Like a girl” and the Ariel “Share the Load” campaigns. But he was also very clear that: “You’ve got to start on the inside before you go outside”. He only felt comfortable sending out these clear messages to the world because he knew that the work had already been done on gender diversity on the inside, with an almost 50:50 split throughout the company. This had come about because the CEO at the time had personally committed to the diversity policy put in place in 1989, with the management team setting the expectations and holding others accountable over the course of a generation. They kept taking action until diversity became “part of who we are and how we operate”.

In the same way that businesses talk about purpose but don’t live it any more than having a plaque on the wall, my fear is that too often businesses these days communicate their “commitment to diversity & inclusion” without really taking effective action that will transform the organisation. I have to wonder sometimes if these leaders of executive committees – filled with only white middle-aged men like themselves – are really as committed to giving all an equal chance to make it to the very top as they proclaim to the world. I sometimes question if they really want to spend time and money behind understanding what’s really going on in terms of unconscious bias and the actual barriers to women entering their leadership circle in their organisation. It’s only natural that there would be a discomfort and an in-built resistance to changing the status quo that has served them so well for decades or even centuries. This resistance may indeed also be happening at an unconscious level, which makes it all the harder to change things “from below”.

My hope is that all the research now available proving the very real financial rewards of having more women at the top will drive the change. I imagine that this data is a real incentive for these very heavily male-dominated management teams, more so than government pressure or the wish to look more socially acceptable.

I hadn’t realised myself just how significant the differences in business performance actually were! Research from McKinsey with 300 companies in 10 countries (Source: “Women Matter”, 2017) shows a 47% difference in return on equity and 55% difference in operating results between the companies with the most women on their executive committees and those with none.

Perhaps these numbers will encourage executive committees to want to turn words into action, to find out what’s really going on in their companies and create new initiatives to make everyone feel they matter in a truly inclusive workplace.

A picture of six people in pairs. One giving a heart to the other, one a smiley face and one a Like symbol. There is some text in the middle saying, 'Together we are stronger'

If you’d like to have a chat to see whether I can help you with insight work for D&I strategy development and/or coaching to support women leaders, please get in touch – I’d love to hear from you.

Thank you so much for making it to the end of this post! If you are interested in more of what I do, please feel free to contact me via this website, or take a look at thejoycoach.com – a new, more personal site (still a work in progress 😊).

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