Putting the emphasis on leadership in a disrupted world

Written by
Dr Elaine Yerby, Senior Lecturer, London School of Economics

22 Sep 2020

22 Sep 2020 • by Dr Elaine Yerby, Senior Lecturer, London School of Economics

Purposeful and empathetic leadership will help organisations to balance short-term risks with sustainability, and to find opportunities in adversity, writes London School of Economics’ Dr Elaine Yerby.

Inherent external risks can fundamentally change an organisation’s trajectory, as recent events have shown. Even businesses that were previously resilient in the face of economic shocks discovered they couldn’t continue to operate in the same way during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Going forward, leaders will need to become adept at balancing short-term risks with the long-term sustainability of their organisation, workforce and the stakeholders that rely upon them. Achieving this balance involves making difficult business decisions and will put an emphasis on ‘how’ we lead. Empathetic, purposeful leadership that places an onus on listening and supporting the physical and mental health of employees, and embracing and supporting diverse workforces, will underpin the building of resilient organisations.

This imperative comes not only from the legal requirement that employers consult extensively with their employees on their return to workplaces. During the pandemic we have witnessed deep divisions and structural inequalities in health provision and access to safe workplaces.

For example, some organisations had insufficient crisis-management plans for mass working from home, or lacked the necessary PPE to keep employees and customers safe. As leaders, we will be under pressure to demonstrate improvements in these areas to our stakeholders as we manage the risk of potential further lockdowns.

A renewed emphasis on diversity and inclusion

We are now aware of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minority employees. There will be a growing impetus for organisations to conduct meaningful equality impact assessments on all ‘return to the workplace’ policies and business continuity plans.

Diversity and inclusion, which prior to lockdown had been rising in strategic significance, takes on a new importance post-pandemic. Leaders who can genuinely embrace a comprehensive approach to supporting and building diverse and inclusive working environments will see benefits for their employees’ physical and mental wellbeing, but also for organisational health and resilience.

Embracing diversity has long been proven to enhance the innovation and adaptability that creates resilient organisations. Where possible, leaders should also be developing strategies that articulate the societal purpose of the organisation to all stakeholders. Demonstrating wider societal ambitions can generate a common purpose and the engagement and commitment from employees required for sustainable organisations.

Opportunities in adversity 

Resilience also involves seeking out the opportunities in adversity. Post-pandemic, an essential part of working practice will be organisational learning strategies, to allow leaders to harness and build upon areas of strength demonstrated during the crisis.

For example, we have witnessed a seismic shift to remote or homeworking, with the Office for National Statistics reporting that, by the end of March this year, 20 million people had relocated from offices. Before this, only 1.4 million people in the UK worked from home on a regular basis.

Emerging survey evidence highlights both positive and negative experiences for employees – and for organisational performance – associated with remote and home-based working. What is clear is that leaders will need to exploit organisational data and engagement with their own employees to establish which aspects of remote working have been effective, and how it will feature in business continuity plans and further into the future.

As leaders, we must actively encourage the collection of broad types of employee data (from pulse checks after virtual meetings to more in-depth feedback, focus groups, and one-to-one meetings) to develop a strong understanding of employee experiences and to explore opportunities that have arisen out of recent challenges.

We have already witnessed organisations incorporating new forms of remote working into their employer brand and talent attraction strategies. When communications are conducted with empathy and openness, there are also opportunities to harness employee insights and ideas for driving innovation, improvements, and new modes of service delivery. These can help to sustain organisations and build their resilience.

During the pandemic, leaders engaging with their people (and wider stakeholders) in purposeful and empathetic ways, when making difficult business decisions, have laid the groundwork for future growth and sustainability. While it is impossible to predict a post-pandemic future, as much depends on the epidemiology of the virus and possible vaccines and therapeutics, leaders moving forward with a clear vision, compassionate style and commitment to diversity will be paving the way for a brighter, more resilient future.

Dr Elaine Yerby is a senior lecturer in practice at the London School of Economics’ Department of Management.

This article is from ‘Adapting is thriving’ – our exclusive e-book produced in partnership with Michael Page. To download the full e-book, which features insights from leading thinkers in the employment space on the post-pandemic workplace, click here.