Anagha Adishesha, Trinity Business School, looks at several key dimensions to leadership as a way to explore how to tackle the challenges faced by firms and employees post-COVID.
Leaders’ Art of Balancing: The company and employees during and after COVID, by Anagha Adishesha.
Young age dilemma
Going back in time, around 2009, my teacher was once busy with her work, hence made me the class leader. My duty was to ensure that silence was maintained in the class, and I was supposed to report back the next day in case of any breach.
There was a conflict between two students. I was in a fix, I had to report it the next day. I was in a dilemma because one of the students in that fight was my best friend. I was not sure what to do. On one side was my best friend and, on the other, were my values which didn’t allow me to lie.
I shared my dilemma with my father. He advised me to have a look at Bhagwad Gita, the holy book of Hindus. I followed his advice and opened the book and found my answer in Chapter 3 verse 21:
कर्मणैवहिसंससद्धिर्ास्थिताजनकादय: | लोकसंग्रिर्ेवाद्धिसम्िश्यन्कततमर्िमसस || 20|| यद्यदाचरततश्रेष्ठथतत्तदेवेतरोजन: | सयत्प्रर्ाणंकतरुतेलोकथतदनतवतमते || 21||
karmaṇaiva hi sansiddhim āsthitā janakādayaḥ loka-saṅgraham evāpi sampaśhyan kartum arhasi yad yad ācharati śhreṣhṭhas tat tad evetaro janaḥ sa yat pramāṇaṁ kurute lokas tad anuvartate
This answered my dilemma. This verse means: “It is the duty of a leader to perform the work and set an example to the world. Because the actions of the leader are always followed by others. So, the leader has to set an example by leading others in the right direction and navigate when the water is rough”. A leader must remember the responsibilities and at the same time the duty enabling a justifiable amount of balance.
Ethical dilemmas can be extremely stressful. Leaders ought to maintain a standard in all their actions. They are answerable to both vertical and horizontal chains when it comes to an organization. In this article, we shall investigate and understand how the leader manoeuvres during Covid and succeeds in saving the company as well as the employees. We will see the history of pandemics and further examine how servant leadership style is most effective. The importance of communication is highlighted to save the company and the employees. Tough times are when real leaders emerge.
History of pandemics
It is said that history repeats itself. Roughly about 100 years ago the globe was tangled in a similar standstill as today. That time it was the “Spanish flu” around 1918-19. Roughly about 30 million people were wiped out across the planet. The economy was at a complete standstill. In 2003, another virus created panic all around and was called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). It spread in a very similar way as Covid-19 today. SARS created havoc by taking lives of more than 8,000 people as per the records of the World Health Organization (WHO). The worst hit during SARS were transportation, travel, and the hospitality industries.
Coming to the present, the Covid-19 pandemic erupted around 2019 and was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the WHO in January 2020 and later as a pandemic.
The entire global economy has plunged and there is anticipation by the World Bank that there might be a further shrink of 5.2% in the economy. Such being the case, countries must help one another to withstand the repercussions. Economies must work together and reopen organizations and ensure that business runs smoothly in-spite of people working from home while maintaining social distancing norms.
However, the burden of ensuring organizational operations rests on the shoulders of leaders. Moreover, the responsibilities of the leaders in the organizations have become more important than before as they are expected to be like a compass and navigate their organizations during the crisis. The company and the employees are complementary to each other – and one can’t exist without the presence of another. In essence, a company is an artificial entity and the burden is on the employees to play their role to keep the company running. Employees are the first and the most essential stakeholders who are directly affected. As such, the leader must ensure that interests of the employees are not compromised.
Now, the most important challenge for leaders today concerns the potential laying-off of employees because of lockdown and financial losses faced by companies. It is a fact that certain companies like Uber, Lyft, and Virgin Atlantic have already laid-off employees or are thinking of lay-off. Choosing between the company and the employees is a high-stakes decision which is not an easy task as the company survives on the hard work and the dedication put in by its employees. The element of risk is further accelerated due to uncertainty. Leaders are not always meant to take all the decisions strategically but should consider that they are connected inextricably to stakeholders and hence ought to be thoughtful and sympathetic. There is a need to look deep into the culture and values of the organization and accordingly make decisions.
Publilius Syrus, a Latin writer rightly says, “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm”. During the pandemic, it is essential that a leader remains humane while indulging in the decision-making process. The pandemic challenges Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which is used to study how humans intrinsically partake in behavioural motivation. As stated by Daniel Goleman it’s “Amygdala Hijacking”. This triggers the psychological aspect of safety among the employees. The next snag faced by the leaders is to understand which leadership style works out the best during the time of the pandemic. Every employee is under the fear of losing their job – this increases the duty of the leader more than ever. The human rights-based approach mentioned in the United Nations Guiding Principles helps to strike a perfect balance during the crisis. It encourages the leader to work in the stages of Respond, Recovery, and Thrive (which is an upcoming type of approach) to check how the decisions taken at the top management level affect the lower chain in the organization.
A true leader is the one who can create a balance between saving both the company and employees. It must be acknowledged that the employees have contributed to the overall growth of the company during good times.
The pandemic has created a severe leadership crisis, causing tremendous psychological stress. Leaders need not have a pre-defined plan on the way to respond but rather a positive mindset and behaviour and avoid over-reaction. Ideally, they ought to remain calm and composed and trail blaze others and keep the organization afloat. Empathy is another attribute. The pandemic has hit everyone rich and poor; it is the duty of leaders to spearhead the implementation of changes.
A leader must drive the organization forward by encouraging the employees not to be emotionally or psychologically let down, and new opportunities and inspire the team. The leader must understand the mental health of the employees and try being humorous and act with a purpose. An authentic leader is one who can gain the support of the employees and enable swift changes in the working conditions during emergence. The best example for this is Unilever, which was able to move swiftly and smoothly by converting its entire Spray manufacturing unit into sanitizer manufacturing with the top management lending full support to the new endeavour.
Being ethical and transparent is the need of the hour. A study conducted during the time of Spanish Flu showed that there was an overall reduction in the staffing has an identical effect on the performance of voluntary turnover. Lay off of the employees for ensuring the survival of the organization is never an option. Top administration can set up an HR Rapid Response Team in their organization to ensure that all the employees are comfortable both mentally and physically and ensure that they are adequately supported while working from home.
Communication as a solution
A Deloitte survey has shown that transparent communication from leaders in general has more value and can make the change implementation smoother. It is also noted that clear communication creates a sense of security in the minds of the employees who can continue to work to their full potential. It further uplifts trust-building which enhances the capacity of the organization to make changes in the strategy and reset its priorities. Communication acts as a bridge between uncertainties and reality.
During the time of crisis, it is of the utmost important that leaders and employees share trust and ensure that there is transparent, fair, and truthful communication. Keeping in mind remote working which is a reality today increases the fear of being laid-off and losing your job. But when the gate of communication is kept open it reduces stress and increases calmness, clears the fear, and makes the employee confident.
Leaders must keep the company moving. Proper communication is most essential during a pandemic, where leadership is seen as more of a supportive element. Research in Hong Kong during the SARS pandemic found that there was an increased social connectedness which enabled a reduction in negative health impacts and acted as a catalyst to make work more enjoyable amidst the difficulties.
A practical solution
A law firm in India employing about 50 people was in a similar situation. From the office boy to the partner of the firm, they found themselves in a tough situation when the courts were closed during Covid. The partners of the firm called for a meeting to communicate on the situation. Many thought they would lose their jobs. But the leader came up with an innovative solution, believing that furloughing staff was not ethical practice. It was assured that all the employees would be paid their salaries and that there would be no layoffs at any cost.
But this suggestion came with a condition. The leader stated that each employee would receive only 50% of their actual salary and that the senior partner would not withdraw more than 1lakh per month. At first glance, salary reduction demotivates any employee, yet during the crisis, it generated positive vibes.
The pay cut was one of the best strategic moves possible during a crisis like this. The leader managed to keep the company afloat and at the same time ensure that none of his employees faced any hardship. The decision was quick and well accepted as there was clear communication, the leadership following a servant leadership style and setting an example in the organization. They reduced their salary to 50%, assuring people that they were all together during this crisis. All this requires a change in mindset and the behaviour of the leader and the employees.
Casing it up
Leading organizations during the pandemic is not an easy task as the leaders are under pressure to ensure that there is no reduction in the organization’s quality of work. During a time of crisis, it is fundamental that leaders and employees share trust and ensure that there is transparent, fair, and truthful communication. Responsible communication creates a sense of ethical behaviour when it flows directly from top management. Showing appreciation upholds the feeling of being inclusive and sets a clear common purpose.
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- Link up with Anagha Adishesha on LinkedIn
- Read a related article: Leading in a Trouble World: Lessons from Covid-19
- Download the CoBS book: Leadership, Governance, and Crisis
- Discover and study at Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin
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