How to lead and support your people through this

Treat the pandemic as a marathon, not a sprint – think about how to support your employees so they will fully engage and emerge upskilled

  • At this time of disruption the need for better engagement from our workforces is greater than ever, even if it is not easy to achieve.
  • Leaders are under pressure but they will not be able to achieve very much without the commitment of their people.
  • Employees need to feel they have autonomy, belonging and the opportunity to display and develop competence - it's an ABC framework.

Each of us has been badly disrupted by the impact of Covid-19. Whether you are a chief executive or a graduate trainee, the work schedule you thought lay ahead of you has been more or less completely torn up. But we are also the people who are going to have to find a way through this difficult moment. Leaders cannot do this on their own. Of course they have to lead – but they have to bring people with them.

Kathleen O’Connor, Clinical Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, has been interviewing leaders around the world, discussing the approaches they are taking and how they are coping with the current crisis. She is interested in what they are doing to ensure the survival of their business, and how they are preparing for eventual recovery.

And she has a question for them: are leaders communicating as often, candidly, clearly and compassionately as their people need them to right now? The answer will tell us how well we will all emerge when the worst of the crisis is behind us.


The running of a marathon provides a neat metaphor. In a grand event like the New York marathon, the leading pack of elite athletes are way out in front while the other runners, in their tens of thousands, lag far behind – in fact they even start long after the leading group does.

Crisis leadership can look a lot like this, according to Professor O’Connor says. Rather like the lead pack, leaders are currently gathered in war rooms set apart from the rest of the organisation, defending against declining revenues, stabilising the business, trying to establish a new normal. They are hunting for cash and trying to run the business. The rest of organisation is far behind and cannot see what is happening. At the same time, the leaders cannot see what is it going on behind them either.

People are currently working from home and are isolated, and many communities are in lockdown. “My people are frightened and overwhelmed,” one CEO told Professor O’Connor.

The survey company Gallup has been researching what people are looking for in their leaders right now. The answer: people need leaders to be trustworthy, compassionate, stable and hopeful.

"People need leaders to be trustworthy, compassionate, stable and hopeful."

Leaders can communicate these qualities in two ways, Professor O’Connor says: by what they say and what they do.

  1. What you say

In crisis communications, “speed is your friend and perfection is your enemy”, according to one expert. It is necessary to be consistent, to be credible and to have compassion. Regularly scheduled, frequent messaging helps.

The leader should be realistic about the challenges everyone faces, hopeful in how the organisation will come through, and must convey a sense that everyone is in this together. This is where a sense of compassion is needed.

2. What you do

Returning to the marathon, leaders—and especially the middle managers and team leaders – must keep the rest of the pack in mind. These are the folks who we need to stay engaged and resilient to help the business through the crisis and into the inevitable recovery.

Research by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci can help these leaders. Their self-determination theory identifies three fundamental psychological needs people have that must be met for people to be healthy, happy, and engaged. I call these the ABCs of Engagement: autonomy, belonging and competence.

Decades of research show that humans thrive and deliver when they can meet these needs.


Autonomy, belonging and competence

Autonomy means having some say over our own behaviour and outcomes. Think of toddlers and the joy they take in saying, “No!” This is an early expression of a need for autonomy. If toddlers have it, your employees have, too. When that need is unmet, people feel unhappy and disengaged. This is true at work and in life.

Belonging is the desire for close relationships, to feel part of a group, to be free to express troubles because you are accepted by that group. People have a powerful need to belong.

Competence comes in two parts. It is both a need to play to our strengths and show what we can do and also an interest in developing new skills. Both aspects are relevant here.

In this current moment of uncertainty, away from their colleagues and working unusual hours to keep up, employees are likely to be suffering. Some may be feeling the pain of isolation and others are exhausted from ramped-up demands. I suggest that leaders consider using the ABCs of Engagement framework to help their employees get through this period. Experimenting with new ways of managing employees is key.

What should leaders do?

Meet employees’ need for autonomy by giving more freedom over when and how they work. The trick here is that during stressful times people tend to respond by tightening control – the “threat rigidity response.” Of course, this instinct to micro-manage undermines autonomy and has the reverse effects on productivity and performance than leaders are seeking.

Professor O’Connor suggests resisting the urge to micro-manage and instead look for ways to provide more autonomy. Begin by setting clear and reasonable-for-now goals and then provide only the level of support employees need in how they meet these goals. She has a few ideas for how to support:

  • Manage with compassion for reports’ circumstances
  • Allow flexibility in how—and how much—work gets done
  • Empower teams to manage their own workloads
  • Provide space and time for employees to work on the assignments and projects of their choosing

As far as belonging is concerned, the current working from home regime is undermining this sense of belonging for many. We see less of our teams and are missing the pleasure we often take in each other’s company.

So it is necessary to create activities that help people feel connected, so that they still feel part of a special culture. The difficulty is that the current pressure to act fast now means that this important cultural reinforcement gets lost.

What can leaders do to boost a sense of belonging? Professor O’Connor suggests:

  • Update regularly
  • Make it psychologically safe to ask for help and encourage people to help and volunteer
  • Share your struggles and vulnerabilities to deepen trust
  • Encourage reports to invent ways of connecting with other and maintaining their connections to one another and the firm (also meets their need for autonomy)

Current time pressure forces managers to assign responsibilities quickly with an eye toward getting it done. Yet, this is a good time to build engagement by helping employees meet their need for competence: to play to their strengths and to develop new, undiscovered skills.

"This is a time for competence: to play to your skills and develop strengths."

Professor O’Connor advises leaders to look ahead to what the business will be after the crisis. When the recovery happens, what kind of skills and insights will we need from our engaged workforce to meet these new business needs?

To boost engagement through competence, Professor O’Connor suggests:

  • Lead with trust, believing that people will use their strengths the best they can.
  • Assign tasks to employees with their strengths in mind
  • Encourage learning and skill development: on-line courses and programmes, leading and attending in-house ‘lunch and learns’ with local experts
  • Create space and time for employees to apply their skills to innovation; perhaps around fresh processes for our current tech-enabled, work-from-home circumstances, for instance.

“As much as you need to lead and manage the business, remember to lead people,” Professor O’Connor says. Your firm cannot get through the current crisis with a disengaged workforce. Now is the time to rely on the ABCs of engagement to help them help the business.

A word of caution. Now is not a time for old-fashioned “carrots and sticks” thining, she adds. “It’s about engagement right now.” More communication is better. Provide more updates, offer more support if that’s what they need. It’s time consuming but it will help people.

Note that with so much communication and experimentation, helping them meet their needs for engagement and competence, you will see a sharp rise in employees offering “harebrained” ideas. Don’t let that opportunity go to waste. Collect them in a virtual suggestions box and read them! There will be some gems in there that you can use to make progress faster.

“I don’t think we will go back to the old normal,” Professor O’Connor concludes. “It turns out that you don’t have to get on a plane all the time. You don’t have to send a team of five people abroad for a week and bring them back again. Right now some of this feels awkward, but pretty soon we are going to habituate, we will want more time at home, less time commuting, less time in a car.”

We just have to make it work and make sure the leaders of the pack don’t get too cut off from the rest of the field.


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