Leading with Humanity and Purpose in Uncertain Times

Written by

Andra London Managing Director | Cristina Lilly President, North America, Managing Director | Maggie Schear Managing Director | Mike Brady Group Creative and Writing Director |

Mar 31, 2020 · 7-minute read

In the summer of 2016, Nick Entrikin spoke with our team about fear. “Threats that extend beyond our realm of knowledge,” said Dr. Nick Entrikin, a Professor of Geography at UCLA and of Sociology at University of Notre Dame, “pose a far greater threat than the known. When we can predict things, we can prepare for them.” Dr. Entrikin is a BrightHouse Luminary, a subject matter expert who lends human insights to our work. Dr. Entrikin’s words are pertinent today and raise a larger question: At a time when everything feels unpredictable, how can leaders prepare their teams to face the unknown?

In a recent article on Why Why Matters Now, BrightHouse President, Americas Cathy Carlisi and CEO Ashley Grice reinforce the importance of Purpose and values in times of crisis. They present a compelling case for why organizational Purpose serves as a backbone of stability, focus, and fortitude. The challenge for individual leaders becomes how to translate these governing ideas into interactions with their teams. Through our work helping clients navigate change, we have identified four principles for leading with humanity through times of uncertainty.

Principle 1: Establish clarity by reinforcing a shared past and future

The best leaders are visionary, painting a clear picture of the future. In times of trial, this forward-looking orientation means not only building resilience to withstand the current moment, but also laying the foundation to thrive on the other side. Less widely known is that the best leaders also emphasize timeless elements from a shared past, that which won’t change in times of change – the organization’s Purpose and values.

Research by professors Merlijn Venus, Daan Stam, and Daan van Knippenberg demonstrated that a sense of organizational continuity “serves an uncertainty-reduction function.” In other words, assuring employees that organizational identity will be preserved gives them greater confidence in the future.

Why? As humans, we find comfort, pride, and identity in our shared values. Jared Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize Winning Author, PhD, and Historian, explained to us that, “Core values permit you to change because they provide a point of reference to which you keep returning.” Connecting to these foundational elements of an organization’s Purpose, along with the Purpose itself, provide common ground that reinforces employees’ desire for the organization to succeed.

For leaders, this means communicating how critical decisions are based on long-held values and sharing stories of the organization exemplifying its Purpose even as it navigates a novel situation. Leaders can help their teams adopt a positive – not Pollyanna – mindset, orienting towards actions the team can contribute to the organization’s long-term success.

Principle 2: Provide support as a secure base by being visible and accessible

A “secure base” is someone who reassures, who helps others refocus and find the way forward. Jeffry Simpson, PhD and Director of the Doctoral Minor in Interpersonal Relationships at the University of Minnesota, spoke with us about the significance of this concept. “If you’re afraid and vulnerable, and someone helps you regulate [your] emotions, figure out where you need to go next, and resolve problems, that promotes security.” This sense of security is particularly important in times of great insecurity, as it counters the paralysis of fear and fosters an environment where work can continue.

Serving as a secure base begins with leaders making themselves visible and accessible. It means keeping the virtual office door open and proactively reaching out to employees, so they know they can ask for help. It means being reliable, clarifying what people can expect, following through on commitments, and making meetings a consistent experience that the team can count on. By creating a space in which colleagues feel comfortable being vulnerable, a leader can help bubble unease to the surface in a controlled manner, calming the current. Finally, when leaders invite sharing, it is critical that they listen to and advocate for their employees, conveying, ‘You’re important. Your concern is important to me, and I’m with you in this.’

Principle 3: Instill confidence by offering an abundance of resources

When people feel helpless to have an impact, they can become hopeless to what’s going on. In crisis situations, where we all experience a threat, the question becomes: Do you have the resources to overcome it? “If you feel there are actions you can take or choices you can make, that will immediately increase your sense of agency,” says Jane McGonigal, world-renowned alternate reality game designer and Director of Game Development & Research for Institute for the Future.

Those resources can range from financial to human, from physical to mental. But it is the abundance of pathways, and therefore the sense that at least one of them will yield a positive outcome, that builds confidence in one’s ability to face the future. “Abundance means there’s always something you can do,” Jane continues. “There’s always an action you can take, a resource you can collect, an ally you can connect with, a tutorial you can learn from, something to make your world a little bit stronger.”

Effective leadership during times of uncertainty means equipping employees with a breadth of resources, so they can continue to operate at a high level. This could be IT support for virtual conferencing, tips for working remotely, wellbeing webinars, or more flexible workdays to accommodate new demands. It may also mean defining new ways to disseminate resources. Establishing chains of communicators, for example, allows team members to hear timely updates not only from an executive, but also from a leader with whom they work closely. These practical strategies and resources, paired with clear goals that leaders define together with their teams, encourage active participation in change.

Principle 4: Build trust through open and human communication

In times of uncertainty, employees feel vulnerable, questioning whether the priorities of leadership lie with people or profits. Doubt and insecurity can paralyze a workforce, affecting not only morale, but also focus, collaboration, and creativity. Jeffry Simpson shared with us that trust, by contrast, is developed when “someone who could take advantage of you does just the opposite—they do something to support you, to improve your situation, to proactively engage in some activity that takes you from a vulnerable state to a positive state.”

The most effective leaders do this by demonstrating, through their actions, that they have the best interests of the organization at heart, from big acts such as structural changes to small ones such as team check-in’s. They show humanity and compassion, making it known that they see their employees not as producers, but as people – mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers. They share how their Purpose and values are guiding them to think not only about their own organization, but society and stakeholders more broadly. And they speak the truth. Good leaders are open emotionally and factually, sharing what they can, keeping the team informed about future plans, and putting those updates into context.

In times of upheaval, leaders are called upon to help employees and communities alike envision a way to a better day. The best leaders do this not only by motivating with an optimistic view of the future, but also by reassuring of those things that won’t change. They are even more visible and accessible, providing resources to support their teams. When leaders lead with humanity, when Purpose and values guide leaders’ actions and subsequently their raw and real words, the organization feels it. And feeling encouraged and buoyed by strong leadership is key to getting through uncertain times together.

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