In the recent HBR article, “How Has the Pandemic Changed You and Your Organization?” Laura Empson, Professor in the Management of Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School, London and Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Diageo Professor of Organization Studies, at the Cambridge Judge Business School, suggest that we have been through a liminal journey in the last 15 months, an imposed departure from our regular and well-worn routines into something that was not unknown but was not comfortable either, “disturbingly different and confusingly similar.”¹
This liminal experience seems to be ending and the call to return to the way we were before is strong. But we have been changed by the year past, as people and as leaders. How will we carry what we have learned, about ourselves and about our work, into the new reality?
We were bold when it started, confident that we would carry on as usual, albeit from our dining rooms, never anticipating the length of our displacement. As time passed, that confidence waned, creating space for doubt, ambiguity, and fear about our business and, simultaneously, gratitude and appreciation for time with loved ones, a different pace and a broader focus in our lives. Some have experienced tragic loss – of loved ones, of income, of access to support systems. Priorities shifted and our points of view have been reframed. Few of us will say we have not been changed by the pandemic.
Leaders are grappling with compelling questions now. What has our experience of this liminal time taught us about how we want to re-enter the world? What have we learned about ourselves, our people and our work? Can what we have experienced fuel our curiosity about what we can create? What is our role in what feels like an emerging, uncertain world?
Human beings long for certainty. We would like nothing more than to return to our work, certain of the path forward, clear about our objectives, sure of the market forces, the supply chain and customer base. But the global stage offers little assurance. COVID cases are on the rise globally, most sharply in the US, India and South America. The vaccine narrative is weakening with news of serious side effects and the controversy over patents. A desire to return to the physical workplace has been replaced with the desire for greater choice about where and when and how people work. And the state and size and speed of economic recovery is under constant scrutiny.
Whether you lead a David or Goliath company, the pressure is on business owners and corporate leaders to deliver economic results. The Davids of the world must strive to dig themselves out of months of cash burn when expenses exceeded revenue. Goliaths need to demonstrate an ability to exceed the good news that is already being priced into their company’s equity valuations. 90% of S&P 500 companies delivered robust earnings in the most recent reporting season. The demand is not to maintain that trend, but to exceed it.
Against this backdrop, corporate leaders need to demonstrate to equity markets an ability to achieve earning per share growth, supporting share price valuations. Success demands that corporate leaders find ways to enhance profitability. Uncertainty associated with greater revenue leads to constant exploration of strategies to cut expenses, such as employee expenses, office expenses, and supply chain expenses. To enhance productivity, enhance innovation, enhance collaboration, corporates are demanding more from their people at all levels of the organization.
Many leaders are hard wired to go immediately into their rational, cognitive, and strategic minds in times like these. The drive to calculate, assess, measure and enumerate is strong. We want to command and control everything we can to meet the demands of our stakeholders. We follow our learned instinct - to focus on capital. The pull is to reduce expenses and head count, press the supply chain, scrutinize cash flow – whatever is necessary to show the profit and loss statement.
Yet here is where the danger lies. In a contracted period of high pressure, relying solely on these “hard skills” means that we are operating as only a fraction of the human beings we are. Ever increasingly, strategies become designed and delivered from a place that is devoid of empathy – for ourselves and for others.
Leaders are human beings who have experienced the pandemic, just like everyone else. Six months ago, we were watching YouTube videos to learn how to cut our own hair. We struggled with new math as we tried to help our kids learn virtually. We navigated relationships with those with whom we were confined and with those we simply could not see. Our own mortality, brought into focus with every news report, made us think about how we want to spend “this one wild and precious life,” as the poet Mary Oliver portrays it.
Where does that human being go when we don the corporate leadership persona?
Remember how we felt a few months into the requirement to work from home? The way we had lived and worked for so long was irreparably torn and we were forced to create something new. Some heralded this as a hallelujah moment, life changing for humanity and for business. We were finding a new balance, seeing whole people on our Zoom screens, all segments of their lives in the frame. The planet got healthier as evidenced by blue skies over Delhi in India. We made silent pledges not to go back to the way it was, to stop the rat race, to reduce carbon emissions, to reconnect with our families, to find balance.
Now, we find ourselves at a critical juncture, a crossroads; we, as leaders, and everyone who works for our companies. As pressure mounts to satisfy shareholders demands, and we need more and more from our people, will we remember the lessons of COVID? Will we seize this opportunity to show up as whole people and, in turn, invite the same in those with whom we work?
We long to live and work as whole people and we know the consequences of pinching off or hiding parts of ourselves. There is a painful toll, both personal and professional. Before the pandemic, so many of us lived on autopilot. By the time we traveled to work, put in 8 or 9 or 10 hours and traveled home, we were like tumbleweeds, moving without cause, not seeing our impact, existing, surviving, just getting through the day. When we spend our days distanced from who we are, putting on the corporate face, we are less capable of contributing, collaborating and creating. Instead, we operate from constriction; guarded, judgmental, and siloed.
Our own experience, in addition to a growing body of research, tells us that leaders who are not whole lose the ability to lead more quickly. And often, those around us, at work and at home, see the impact of restricting our own humanity sooner than we do. The damage is done slowly, but surely, as our credibility wanes and our ability to garner support from our people is compromised. Why does this happen? Because leaders who don’t bring their whole selves to their work cannot create the conditions and cultures for others to do so.
If companies want more from their people, and people are fueled by bringing their whole selves to every part of their lives, the relationship between corporate needs and human needs has to be rebalanced. It is time for us as leaders to model the way for our people. While we cannot offer the certainty of predictable market forces or the end of the pandemic, we have the chance to offer certainty of a different kind – congruence, consistency, reliability and authenticity.
Why should leaders make an investment in inviting and developing whole people? So that the human beings in their stewardship feel ownership, autonomy and agency, and, in turn, achieve more creativity, collaboration, motivation, productivity and ultimately, a healthier bottom line.
Over the last 25+ years, TAI has been witness to the transformational change within companies when individuals turn up as their whole selves, and not a fraction. To bring whole people to the table, to the work, you must be one, live as one, work as one.
¹Empson, L. & Howard-Grenville, J. (March 10, 2021) How Has the Past Year Changed You and Your Organization? Harvard Business Review; Psychology