10 June 2020

The importance of leading with compassion


As we slowly return to the workplace business leaders can help the company retain talent by adopting a truly human first approach.

Mark Carney, the retiring Governor of the Bank of England’s recent article in the Economist noted that the Covid-19 pandemic could cause a fundamental shift in how companies in the future will be judged based on how they treated people during the crisis. With the world in disarray there is a social duty to look after one another as we move forward. A duty that extends beyond our home life and into the workplace. How business leaders act now will be remembered. For we are at a reckoning point in history. A point in which business leaders who act with compassion will not just be remembered but can take the world into a fresh direction. 

Leading through change

HR’s role has always echoed and mirrored changes in economics and with businesses currently more trusted than government (Edelman 2020) they are in a prime position to lead this change. The motto of “human first” has been a growing message over the last few years. However, it is not just a nice to have, it is suddenly a must have with a new and urgent meaning. Wellbeing and safety has  been thrown sharply into focus. It is no longer just about enhancing health, it is now a matter of urgently preventing disease spreading. Yes, you could argue that prevention of disease has always been a long-term goal of wellbeing programs but there is a difference. In the past that goal was seen to be the prevention of long term and chronic illness through changing unhealthy lifestyle choices and alleviating stress. Now the goal of prevention of disease is from an immediate threat. Preventing the spread of communicable diseases like Covid-19 needs a very different approach. 

The messaging around how to keep safe is currently confusing and even if understood it is constantly changing. It is the role of business leaders and HR to step up to communicate what they are doing to protect the safety of their employees, to lead with confidence but also compassion. We are dealing with the unknown, new stresses surround us. They are taking an emotional toll. Research from McKinsey shows that the steps HR and business leaders take now will set the foundation for the new culture of trust and wellbeing at work, increasing not just engagement but retainment at a time when companies need it the most. 

Safety first

If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a classic psychological model for our motivation and need states, you will see a pyramid made up of five levels. On each level is something we strive for as a human. It starts with physiological needs (shelter, food) at the bottom. Once this is fulfilled, we look to safety needs (health and security). On the next level is our need for love and belonging (connection), penultimately self-esteem (recognition), and finally at the top, self-actualisation (our desire to be our best selves). 

Normally wellbeing programs target the top two rungs; self-esteem and self-actualisation. They sit on the rung below bolstered by a workplace environment that has developed a culture of trust and belonging. Wellbeing programs aim to give people a sense of worth and validation. By doing so employees are motivated to change their behaviours in a way that has positive, and calculable health costs. The Covid-19 crisis has shifted our priorities downwards when it comes to wellbeing. Suddenly our immediate physical safety is at stake.

As people return to the workplace wellbeing programs need to acknowledge this. If a need on a lower rung on the pyramid is not fulfilled, the higher ones can never be met. Safety and wellbeing have always been linked but now the focus is on safety first. 

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Katherine Templar Lewis

Katherine Templar Lewis spends her time as a Futurist, science communicator and consultant. She has travelled the globe speaking on new technology and its impact on individuals and society and has appeared on range of media as a science and technology expert including BBC, Sky News, Radio 4, NBC and the Today Show. She is a contributor to a range of media and is a guest blogger on The Huffington Post and is a believer in building a better future with human first technology.

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