Shedding the armour after the crisis

It was another reengineering, another restructuring, another ‘maximising the talent pool’, another cycle of redundancies, another programme of ‘forward vision and present values’. This one was the biggest for three years. 300 people would be leaving across all parts of the company : support functions, line managers, every level of the hierarchy.

The Board meeting was worried.

What would be the effect on the business growth? Would it affect profits? Could we afford the cost of redundancy packages? What would be the effect on the pension funds? How quickly could the process be completed? Would our managers give the right message?

Consistent communication would be vital, all the people round the table agreed. The message had to be cascaded accurately through each level of the company.  The plan would dictate a brief meeting with each person losing their job - state the facts, restate the facts - and then have them passed into the hands of the HR experts for sympathy and next steps.  A relentless round of wounded and dazed people being ushered into the selected meeting room, watched in horror by their colleagues, who were fearing they would be the next.

The Board considered how it would manage to keep the communication clear, and how the ritual format would be maintained. It was clear training would be required for our managers so that they would be able to convey the right messages, and distance themselves emotionally from people they may have worked for with for many years. Feelings were to be kept to one side so that the rational message was not disturbed, sentient people had to act as to be automatons. Yes, agreed the board we must get them trained, bring in some consultants who will be able to train them all in secret. The plan was hatched, the budget agreed……… and then someone asked the unspoken question.

What about us? We have to start this process from the top; we have to talk to some of our people who we've known for many years, who have been trusted managers for our company, whose families we know. We might need training in how to get the message straight, how to distance ourselves emotionally, how to bounce back to motivate everybody after such a blow, how to ensure our empathy and humanity survive such a ritual process. An uneasy silence descended. One voice hesitatingly agreed:  yes, we should think about ourselves; we are human too; we should set an example to the rest of the company. The nervous silence fell again. An audible heavy breathing of human breath caught everybody by surprise.

Then someone laughed and rolled back in their chair. What are we thinking of? We are meant to be the leaders. We wouldn’t be where we are today if we hadn’t been able to manage this sort of process. Our example will be to brace ourselves, put on the armour and show that this is the right thing to do.

Faces changed from human concern to humorous agreement. More laughter ensued and some (almost unanimous) relief. Yes, of course we don’t need training this is what we do as leaders. We’ve been through worse before. Smiling faces turned to the person who had suggested we needed help. Smiles disguised the pity and scorn for someone who had suggested vulnerability and empathy. The collective peer pressure closed ranks and prepared for battle. The moment had passed.

The rest of the agenda beckoned. Heroes of industry could put on their armour and lead from the front again

Armour is heavy stuff. it can keep out spears and arrows and swords, it protects the body. It’s also hard to breathe in armour, not good for the mind. You have to keep lifting the visor or taking in air through those little slots. And if you fall over heavy armour means you can't get back up again….unless you ask for help.  Armour kills as well as protects.

Vulnerability and empathy are precious gifts too often unwrapped in the world of business. Good citizens and family nurturers left their humanity parked by the building entrance, as they entered the world of control, order and fear.

Old practises of command and control, hierarchical management, leadership that looked ahead but never behind are now largely outdated….but the legacy lingers on.

In crisis conditions, as we have seen in the pandemic, two-way communication, feedback, listening, vulnerability and empathy can be early casualties. All too easy to move into the leadership styles of ‘pace setting’ and ‘coercive’ and ‘dictatorial’, excusing them on the grounds that ‘for now, we just need urgent clear direct action’. Such styles are seductive and addictive. When do crisis conditions come to an end? When do the other positive leadership styles re-emerge to enable leaders to adopt  ‘affiliative, coaching, visionary, collaborative’?

Before the pandemic, organisations were beginning to recognise the importance of empathy, compassion, vulnerability, looking after the mental health of their ‘colleagues’.

As the pandemic eases, the successful organisations will come quickest to realise the battering people have had through the pandemic, lead them humanely into the world beyond it, recognise frailty, lack of confidence, and the way these can mask real talents and hope. The winners will see the dangers of armour and ensure they are helping restore bodies and minds.

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