What We Have Learned So Far from the COVID Pandemic

Image credit: Getty

We are approximately nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic and a number of things have now become fairly clear, both in society at large, and in the workplace. In addition to widely accepted observations, my executive search firm, Top Gun Ventures, conducted multiple executive roundtables, which we called “GameChanger Dialogues,” with executive level leaders across multiple industries (including higher education) and regions across the globe. We learned a great deal from those sessions about how different companies and organizations are navigating what are broadly understood to be unprecedented challenges, some of which I’ll share in this article.

Starting from a high level first, however, it is evident that the pandemic has served as both a cause of change in its own right and an accelerant of already existing trends. The most salient lesson has probably been that given the right circumstances, we can change the way we do almost anything—and relatedly, what we thought was “sacred” and untouchable before the pandemic became negotiable in the face of an existential crisis. What has also become evident is that some things will not go back to how they were even after we are ensconced in the next normal. Some examples likely include less business and recreational travel, and continued working from home, hybrid education (even on campus), telehealth, and low or no contact shopping and dining. 

So, what are some of the other significant takeaways so far?

In Society

Inequities that existed before COVID have been exacerbated by the crisis (for individuals, families, communities, and organizations/businesses).

The pandemic revealed that the “recovery” from the 2008 recession was both uneven and fragile for many people and businesses. Tens of millions of people were pushed into the gig economy, working for less pay and no benefits[1], and many “essential” workers make the lowest salaries and earn the weakest benefits in the workplace. Many millions also lost homes and businesses in the last recession and never recovered previously held assets and wealth. Access to healthcare, education, and full-time employment with benefits was already declining for many people and, as noted by the Federal Reserve, nearly half of Americans had greater monthly obligations than income before COVID. The crisis has made clear that many children and families do not have the technology resources or internet access to engage in education or telehealth, further separating them from the “haves” in society. One of the most glaring examples of inequity so far relates to the fact that about 10% of the population has grown more wealthy during the pandemic due to holding 92% of the equities in the stock market. The top 1% of Americans now hold half of all the equity in the stock market.

Political polarization has penetrated something as seemingly straightforward as public health policy.

Political polarization, particularly over the last several years, is not new. However, the politicization of something as basic as public health policy has resulted in greater COVID-19 infections and deaths due to the lack of a centralized policy and support structure, as well as turning preventative measures into an individual rights issue. As we head into fall and soon winter, we are already seeing daily infection records in many parts of the country and world, and that is before what is likely to be significantly worse infection rates in the winter season in the Northern hemisphere. A telling example from earlier in the summer was the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, in which, despite local opposition and public health recommendations against the rally, roughly half a million people descended on the Sturgis, SD area. Because of nearly non-existent contact tracing, it is impossible to know how many infections came directly from the rally, but it is clear that the infection rates in surrounding states surged dramatically in the two weeks following the event, tripling and then quadrupling in South Dakota. Willful disregard for the wellbeing of others is not new in the human condition, but it is relatively new at such a large scale in American society. Interestingly, the same people who choose not to follow public health guidelines because they believe it is their right not too, still follow many other “rules” that are designed to protect others such as buying liability insurance for their vehicles and not driving drunk.

Our collective mental health has worsened over the course of 2020.

According to the American Psychological Association, Americans in particular were more stressed in 2019 (before the pandemic) than at any time since the APA began surveying stress levels many decades ago, primarily because of political divisiveness, climate change, and mass shootings among other issues. By October of 2020, a global survey conducted by Oracle found that an astounding 78% of respondents claimed that the challenges of 2020 have made their mental health worse than it was in the previous year. The National Institute for Mental Health has also found that anxiety and depression have increased significantly over the course of 2020 and that mental illness related mortality may equal or even exceed the deaths caused directly by COVID-19!

Our behavior directly impacts the ebb and flow of the virus itself.

Although there was some confusion early in the pandemic about transmissibility and best practices for prevention, it has been clear since at least late spring that three simple behaviors dramatically reduce the transmission of the virus: wearing a mask, maintaining modest physical distance, and good hygiene with the hands and face. The epidemiological science is clear that where these behaviors are practiced, by individuals and groups, infection rates are very low. Where they are not practiced, infection rates are high. In countries that were very disciplined early on (South Korea, China, Singapore), life is nearly back to normal. In countries such as the U.S., Russia, and India where the public was not disciplined, infection rates are as high or higher than at any point during the pandemic. The head of the CDC has said that if everyone in America wore a mask and washed their hands every day (in the presence of others outside their immediate family) that the pandemic would be effectively ended in roughly eight weeks, yet substantial numbers of Americans simply won’t do that and, as a result, the pandemic continues unabated.

In Organizations

It’s really hard to manage a crisis, run the daily business, and strategize for the future all at the same time.

As we discovered in our GameChanger Dialogues, it is very difficult for leaders and their organizations to do three difficult things at once. Although it’s possible, it is rare, and we found that most organizations are still mostly focused on business continuity relative to the crisis rather than actively seizing opportunities for the future. While this was common across industries, it was even more prevalent in higher education, where leadership teams seem to be confusing the efforts and changes related to crisis management with planning for the future. Not so ironically, those leaders who were focused on future opportunities reported that their employees were less stressed out by the crisis itself and saw the focus on the future as a competitive advantage that will pay dividends going forward.

Leadership practices that worked at least reasonably well prior to the pandemic are much less effective now—and some are simply counterproductive.

Although “traditional” leadership profiles were becoming much less effective before the pandemic, the crisis has quickly separated the wheat from the chaff when it comes to leaders that are capable of leading through the crisis vs. those who are not. The need for people leadership skills and traits that make leaders accessible and trustworthy to their followers have been drastically amplified through the pandemic, in which organizations need leaders who are compassionate, authentic, and vulnerable, but who have a plan and can instill hope and stability. In short, what we’ve learned is that people don’t need their leaders to know everything or be bullet proof. They do need them to be honest and genuine. They also need them to have the integrity to make decisions based on deeply held values rather than fear or short-term thinking.

Leadership matters: Within organizations, communities, and government

Relatedly, it has, not surprisingly, become very clear that leadership matters in the face of crisis. Prior to the COVID pandemic, many entities were benefitting from a high tide that kept most afloat regardless of the quality of their leadership. What the crisis has made clear is that regardless of the kind of entity or organization in question (municipality, company, university, or even a national government), those with high quality leadership have fared much better than those without. As noted above, basic things such as honesty, transparency, compassion, integrity, care for people, having a plan and clear communications about the plan, etc. have been critical to those entities that have survived and even thrived through the pandemic. On the contrary, ego, dishonesty about the breadth and depth of the problem, competition over collaboration, short-term gains over values, concern about image over people, etc. have been detrimental and even lethal in worst case scenarios.

Actions taken over the next six to 12 months will determine future winners and losers

Although a few industries have actually benefitted from the pandemic, most have experienced a continuum from modest challenges to existential crisis. In some industries such as dining and hospitality, hundreds of thousands of businesses have closed and millions of employees are out of work. In higher education, about a third of all colleges and universities were operating at a deficit before the pandemic and many will not survive into the near and mid-term future. About 250,000 employees in higher education have been laid off since February and it will almost certainly get worse in the coming year as institutions, both public and private, realize that their expense is still materially greater than their revenue. For the survivors, the actions they take now and in the next 18 months in terms of preserving liquidity, developing alternative revenue streams, strengthening the customer value proposition, increasing efficiencies, opening new markets, etc., will determine whether or not they have a future. More importantly the extent to which they make decisions that create a legacy they want to have, will be remembered by employees and customers for a long time. As Mark Cuban recently said, “The way companies treat their employees in times like these will be their defining feature in the coming months and years.”

So, we’ve learned things from the COVID crisis that are encouraging and we’ve learned some things that give us pause. As with any crisis, there are challenges and opportunities. Some people rise to the occasion and some fail—and many of the failures are backfilled with new, entrepreneurial approaches that present openings that would not have been possible in status quo times. One encouraging result of the pandemic is that we are collectively accepting things that we didn’t in the past. We are seeing each other as actual human beings, even in work contexts! We are accepting change, even dramatic change, that would have not been possible prior to the crisis. We’ve learned that we can be more flexible, and at times, more empathetic than we realized. And maybe most importantly of all, the COVID crisis has peeled back deep, problematic realities in society that have long been ignored such as systemic inequity and systemic bias. As brutal as the pandemic has been, with nearly ten million known infections and nearly a quarter of a million deaths in the U.S. alone, not to mention the worst recession since the great depression with tens of millions of people out of work, and rapidly declining mental health, this global crisis also represents opportunities to finally address critical, structural issues we have declined to effectively tackle in the past such as adequate health care, deep economic inequity, systemic racism, quality education for all, and adequate housing among others. As someone who was born in the last year of the Baby Boomer generation, on the early edge of Gen X, while I have little faith in people of my age, I am heartened by what I see from young people today. It is clear that younger Gen Xers, Gen Y, and even Gen Z, who have inherited the worst deal of any generation since the depression, are much more open, less biased, more socially conscious, and less selfish than their elders. They are the ones who will build a better world, and the pandemic of 2020 may just have broken things enough to allow the new construction to begin.


[1] The current unemployment numbers are significantly under reported because they do not include the many millions of people who were working as “independent contractors” in the gig economy before the pandemic struck.

New Webinar: How to Ensure that Your College or University Will Survive the Current Crisis and Thrive in the Future–Oct 28 and 30

In partnership with the EdUpExperience!

Topic

How to Ensure that Your College or University Survives the Current Crisis and Thrives in the Future

Description

Higher Education was in the midst of an extended, eight year decline even before the COVID crisis. As a result, the industry was in a weakened state previous to the pandemic, which has pushed many institutions to the brink. The good news is that there are strategies for surviving and thriving and we know what they are. For institutions that are prepared to accept the challenge and take the necessary steps, there is a path forward to a bright, relevant, and sustainable future.

Presenter

Dr. Wallace Pond, Education Practice Partner, Top Gun Ventures

Oct 28th Noon EDT Registration https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_eE0bMmQjTjKhnwkaaXZ_Aw

Oct 30th 3 pm EDT Registration https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_LJlghWMlQJeiDUh6kX4psg

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: No More Excuses

Image credit: GRESB.com

Setting the Context

Everyone has felt excluded at one time or another. The difference for people who are the targets of institutionalized and structural bias is that the exclusion and discrimination they experience cause deep, life-long disadvantage. As employers, there is clearly a role for organizations to play in ameliorating this disenfranchisement. In fact, there is no longer a defensible argument in any organization for not actively supporting equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).

Yes, there is a business case for diversity, and many publications have laid out the bottom line benefits, but that is probably not the primary reason any organization should support EDI. Make no mistake, this is not only a business decision, it is a moral imperative. Diversity and inclusion should be a sacred, strategic initiative because it is one of the most righteous things an organization can do to support humanity as it exists, both internally and externally. As the world-famous advocate for victims’ justice and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel so eloquently and powerfully said, “Always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

Before we get into the how, the what bears some discussion. We tend to throw the word “diversity” around pretty casually or we think about it from a compliance perspective, i.e., federally protected classes of employees (race, sex, age, religion, etc.). For the purposes of increasing diversity to the benefit of an organization and the people in it, however, I would argue that we have to think much more broadly. Examples include culture, language, mental and physical abilities, neuroprocessing and cognition, gender identification, mental health status, and even political views and ideology. Acronyms that are often used in discussions of diversity include BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer). These are helpful acronyms, and I’ll use them here, but as noted, true diversity goes beyond racial, sexual, and gender categories. One other note is that I will use “race” as a social construct rather than a biological or genetic concept, since there is no compelling evidence that race exists as a biological phenomenon.

And to be clear, no “diversity initiative” can work without a deep, concomitant commitment to equity and inclusion, which is about ensuring that people feel welcome, valued and respected for who they are. In fact, many diversity initiatives appear to have initial success, then wither on the vine, because folks effectively recruited into the organization do not feel welcome, included, or respected once they’re there.

So, what fundamental things have to be true for diversity and inclusion initiatives to have a chance of success?

First of all, as the author Joseph Conrad said, you cannot fix what you cannot face. No matter what else we do, it starts with acceptance of the reality that the reason we need active initiatives for equity, diversity, and inclusion is because many opportunities in society are not, in fact, open to all and many people in society and in organizations do not regularly experience equity and inclusion. Once we face the reality, there are a number of process requirements that also must be true. Examples include:

  • Executive leadership has to believe it’s the right thing to do and that it is equal to or more important than other strategic initiatives.
  • EDI has to be a long-term commitment (not the initiative of the quarter), with the goal of permanently altering the organization.
  • The effort has to be supported from the top down and as a grass roots project as well.
  • The organization has to support transparency and be prepared for difficult, even painful conversations and realizations.
  • The organization has to encourage and validate minority viewpoints.
  • People do not have to be diversity and inclusion experts across the organization, but they have to approach the effort with empathy, an open mind, and a willingness to learn.
  • Probably most importantly, in the spirit of Conrad’s observation, there has to be nearly unequivocal acceptance that concepts such as systemic racism, unconscious bias, patriarchy, and privilege exist and are insidious. The reason this is critical is because in the absence of such acknowledgement, it is not possible to address the systemic and structural realities within organizations that mitigate against diversity and inclusion.

Relatedly, concepts such as intersectionality and micro-aggressions are also real and ignoring them has been a significant barrier to supporting success for BIPOC, LBGTQ and other diverse populations. This is a critical point. For example, people can believe that systemic racism doesn’t exist in the same way they can believe climate change doesn’t exist, but by definition they cannot be part of the solution and it isn’t productive to attempt to change their views. As this relates to discrimination, however, “non-believers” still must be held accountable for behaviors that perpetuate the oppression of others. Ignorance is not a free pass. This is one reason that EDI efforts are often so fraught within society and organizations. It’s not just about equalizing opportunity. There are inevitably people with privilege within the human hierarchy (and the organization) who will see increasing opportunity for diverse colleagues as a threat to their own place (and their privilege).

In her new book Caste, Isabel Wilkerson frames the four-hundred-year American history of sometimes brutal repression and subjugation in the context of a caste system, whose very existence is for the sole purpose of preserving privilege within the hierarchy. Her book is a helpful way to think about the structures and behaviors that preserve privilege and fossilize the place of most people in the caste into which they were born. Of course, there is socio-economic mobility up and down for individuals within any group, but broadly speaking there is very limited upward mobility for traditionally disenfranchised groups because the social institutions that support mobility such as education, housing, employment, healthcare, etc. are less available or of lower quality than for those from more privileged groups. And the criminal justice system, rather than protecting diverse populations, particularly those of color, often compromises opportunity through disproportionate arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. To be clear, the point of EDI efforts in organizations is not to redress 400 years of discrimination and subjugation. However, such efforts need to acknowledge the history in order to have credible context.

Organizations as a Reflection of Society

If we think of organizations as societal microcosms, then we have to accept that in order to grow diversity, and in particular to achieve inclusion, we have to dismantle the structures that promote privilege and disenfranchise those who are outside the “mainstream.” Just as in larger society, the objective is not to weed out the “bad apples” who act inappropriately. The objective is to address the systemic realities that perpetuate discrimination and mitigate against genuine equity, diversity and inclusion.

Similarly, EDI must be supported by organizational culture or it will fail miserably for the same reasons that anything not supported by culture will fail. It is culture that ultimately determines how people behave in organizations—not rules or proclamations, or management directives.

Moreover, diversity and inclusion efforts have to be long haul initiatives dedicated to making diversity the norm. They have to transcend time and leadership, which is why culture is so critical. The values have to be deep and invulnerable to changing budgets, leaders, competitive environments, external political realities, etc.

The Basis of a Plan

The first requirement of a plan is to elevate diversity and inclusion to the same level as other strategic initiatives with the same tangible treatment (financial resourcing, performance metrics, accountability, etc.). And ensure that it is not just an “HR initiative.” It must exist in the organizational mainstream with accountability for functional areas and business units.

The Role of Leadership

Acknowledging and addressing racism and other institutional systems of oppression are core

leadership responsibilities. Leaders cannot equivocate when prejudice rears its head. As the remarkable Elie Wiesel said, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Leaders must also consistently model desired behaviors, including zero tolerance for bias. Zero tolerance means that no case of discrimination or bias can go unacknowledged and or unremediated. Every example is a “teaching moment” that doesn’t necessarily end in disciplinary action. In fact, enlightenment is a better objective than punishment.

Policy

Policy must support diversity and inclusion. This includes recruiting, compensation, job descriptions, performance evaluations, benefits, bonuses, scheduling, training, promotion, discipline, etc. Talking directly with BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse employees about how policies directly affect them in problematic ways is a good place to start.

The Whole Organization

Executive sponsorship can support compliance and even culture, but ultimately commitment has to exist at all levels for equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives to grow and prosper. One key strategy for achieving this is to ensure that all levels and parts of the organization reflect similar diversity. Since that is a longer-term proposition, in the interim, policy that supports and incentivizes EDI is essential. Relatedly, social structures within the organization, whether work or non-work related, must facilitate integration and inclusion so that traditionally excluded populations can benefit from the informal systems that support success.

Education and Training

Any EDI plan should include educational components on how bias impacts BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse populations and how privilege impacts everyone. Organizations should make this commitment in the same way they would commit to learning anything else folks need to know to do their job well. Individuals do not need to be experts in every esoteric issue connected to race or gender or ableism, etc., but they must approach these issues with a sense of humility and empathy commensurate with their privilege.

The Role of Diverse Employees

While it is critical to give voice to diverse employees, EDI efforts should never require that marginalized employees do the heavy lifting. BIPOC and LBGTQ employees can certainly play a role in supporting diversity and inclusion, but they cannot be tasked with enlightening everyone else or carrying the message of why diversity and inclusion are necessary. It is not their job to dispel ignorance or motivate others.

Support for Diverse Employees

In addition to changing and creating policy that supports the needs of BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse employees, purposeful support systems such as mentoring (by both similar and mainstream mentors), training to mitigate skills gaps (technical and soft), and possibly most importantly, letting BIPOC, LGBTQ and other diverse community members be different and search out “their own kind.” Success cannot come through forced assimilation. It can only come from genuine acceptance and respect, which includes ensuring that typically disenfranchised employees are not only free, but encouraged to speak up and speak out.

Moreover, once people of diverse backgrounds are successfully brought into the organization, it is crucial that it is a place they actually want to be. Businesses and institutions do not have to be perfect, but they do have to feel safe and marginalized folks have to believe that the organization’s efforts to make them feel welcome and included are genuine. It is also essential that BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse individuals believe that they have the same opportunities as their mainstream colleagues—this does not mean special treatment—it simply means a fair shot.

Undoing Systemic Bias

EDI efforts also require undoing structural barriers and replacing them with support systems that help to mitigate centuries of systemic bias and related disenfranchisement. Many of the most diverse (read “different from the mainstream”) people in society, and thus in our organizations, have been structurally disadvantaged relative to education, healthcare, housing, criminal justice and other institutions, in many cases generationally, and as such, often come into organizations (if they’re recruited at all) with life experiences and frames of reference that are quite different from their mainstream colleagues. One terrible reality of living through structural bias is the affect it has on certain mindsets such as fear, confidence, and self-efficacy. Being marginalized does not affect intelligence or innate ability. It can, however, compromise traits that in privileged employees are often associated with success such as risk taking, having strong opinions, communicating in “standard” language, dressing “appropriately,” etc. That is why it is critical that EDI initiatives, at their core, include a commitment to deconstruct systems (hiring, promotion, compensation, scheduling, etc.), that rely on criteria that fundamentally disadvantage non-mainstream employees (and perpetuate privilege for mainstream employees). A good example is the fact that organizations have long blamed their failure to increase diversity on the claim that they simply cannot find qualified minority (both racial and other diverse characteristics) candidates. While it is true that there are not enough traditionally credentialed applicants to meet the needs of every organization in a given industry, there are plenty of candidates for the organizations that truly want them and even enough for all vacancies if HR departments and hiring managers are willing to think more creatively about what “qualified” means—and what support they’re willing to provide to new hires. Not so ironically, it is often true that the very requirements written into job descriptions that make diverse candidates “hard to find,” reflect the systemic bias that makes the same organizations both impenetrable and unwelcoming to BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse candidates. This is a complex and difficult process because so much of the systemic bias in society and in organizations is “unconscious” (or even denied) on the part of those folks most in a position to make positive change. It requires discipline, humility, empathy, and an open mind.

Assessing the Effort

As noted early in this article, in order for EDI efforts to get traction and be sustainable, they have to be treated and supported in the same way as any other critical, strategic commitment, with concomitant objectives, metrics, and accountability. One key factor, however, is that determining the success or failure of EDI initiatives must include the opinions of BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse individuals in the organization. In the same way that systemic bias is often “invisible” to those of privilege, so are the outcomes from commitments to improve equity, diversity, and inclusion. For example, people in the mainstream (at all levels of an organization) are much more likely to see numerically increasing diversity as “success,” with little or no insight about improvements in equity or inclusion, which must be judged by diverse employees themselves.

EDI Initiatives Headed by Privileged, Mainstream Leaders

Can a privileged, White male lead a diversity initiative? Of course. In fact, in most organizations, the most senior executives are almost all going to be White males, so if the C-Suite is going to be involved, it will require leadership and commitment from White men. Of course, this presents an interesting dynamic in which a campaign to permanently increase diversity and inclusion is driven by someone who, by virtue of his privilege, likely has little or no direct experience with overt discrimination, micro-aggressions, racism, sexism, etc. On the other hand, with the right education, coaching, empathy, and commitment, folks with privilege, even significant, intersectional privilege, can be highly effective advocates for the kinds of change necessary to support diversity and inclusion—mostly because they have power. Over time, if the change is systemic and includes the necessary support systems, senior and executive management ranks will reflect the same diversity seen across the organization and leadership will reflect the important perspectives of those previously disenfranchised.

A Way to Think about Supporting EDI

Long before I was a senior leader, let alone a CEO, I was a schoolteacher. I taught mostly at-risk youth from bilingual kindergarten through high school.  Whether I was working with migrant children, kids from socio-economically deprived families, BIPOC students, or privileged, mainstream youth, as educators, we had to accept students where they were, not where we wanted them to be (from our mostly privileged perspective), and figure out what interventions were necessary to facilitate their success. Even the most prejudicial people would be unlikely to say that non-mainstream children don’t deserve to go to school and achieve to their potential. Certainly, we can say the same about the workplace (and other organizations). In the same way that culture, language, sex, gender-identity, “race,” financial means, cognitive processing, and other factors impact the way children engage with and are served by schools, a similar dynamic applies to organizations comprised of adults. If we believe that everyone deserves an opportunity for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and I hope we all do, then we should also believe that the opportunity to achieve those goals should also be available to everyone. In order for that to be true, organizations can no longer justify any reality related to equity, diversity, and inclusion that disenfranchises anyone due to their uniqueness. Period.

Acknowledgement

Although I have been a personal advocate for diversity and equity for as long as I can remember, I also represent the pinnacle of intersectional privilege. As a result, despite my extensive experience in places in which I have been a “minority,” in terms of language, culture, race, and religion, I have never been disenfranchised by structural bias. Ever. Even though I am probably more “woke” than most White, male, English speaking contemporaries, my privilege still creates massive blind spots and there are some things I can only infer or imagine. One of the most important, recent factors in my own enlightenment was the book, So You Want to Talk About Race, by the author Ijeoma Oluo. Oluo is a queer, female, black immigrant (not necessarily in that order), who also recognizes her own privilege where it exists, and who is a profound thinker and great writer on the subject of racism and other examples of bias. If you are a privileged, mainstream person who would like to quickly be enlightened about the differences between disenfranchisement and privilege, told from both a scholarly and very personal perspective, I strongly recommend Ijeoma’s book.

Footnote

This article refers to many interventions for ameliorating bias and disenfranchisement of BIPOC, LBGTQ, and other diverse individuals, but does not provide many specific details. For example, it is essential that policy supports EDI, but the article does not provide examples of hiring policies that disadvantage diverse applicants (or policies to support the hiring of diverse applicants), which is beyond the scope of the article. However, for any reader who would like to see specific examples, or simply discuss the content of the article in further detail, please reach out to me directly at wkp@wallacekpond.com.

Additional Resources

So You Want to Talk about Race, by Ijeamo Oluo

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson

Eight Best Practices for Changing Culture

Diversity and Inclusion Practices for 2020

What Meetings Tell Us About Organizational Culture

Image Credit: Susan Beaumont

I have done a lot of work related to healthy organizational culture, both as a CEO and consultant, mostly because it’s so darn important for success—and so detrimental when it’s unhealthy or just disregarded. Ironically, despite the centrality of culture to just about any positive outcome, it is one of the most ignored areas of focus by executives. One reason it is frequently ignored is because it is foreign and mysterious to typical leaders—they’ve simply never been led to believe it’s of value nor tutored on how to support it. Secondly, it’s time consuming, complex, and requires a long view commitment. Most executives got to where they are because of their ability to deliver short term “results,” even at the expense of the development of human capital and long term sustainability. Organizations and the people in them suffer as a result. And ultimately, so do the leaders who’ve ignored the role of culture in their own organizations.

Even though there are a number of characteristics we can safely ascribe to healthy culture in typical organizations such as transparency, honesty, care for people, teamwork, accountability, etc., the reality is that what ultimately matters most is the extent to which culture is rational. In other words, do the values, beliefs, and behaviors in organizations support the achievement of stated operational and strategic goals? This is so critical because ultimately, it is organizational culture that determines how people behave over time—not proclaimed values or mission or management directives.

Interestingly, meetings are a great microcosm of organizations that can tell us a whole lot about culture!

Meetings are often the punching bag of water-cooler talk (or whatever the remote working analogue to that is). There is frankly a lot of disdain for meetings, but that is not because meetings are inherently bad or a waste of time. There is disdain because meetings are frequently used for the wrong purposes and often reveal the worst in organizational culture.

Let’s take a look starting with “bad” meetings.

At their core, meetings typically reflect the hierarchy in organizations, because by design, one person controls the participation and time of others. In fact, when folks get double booked, the decision about which meeting to attend rarely has anything to do with which one is more important. To the contrary, it is usually governed by which meeting is led by the person higher up in the org chart! At its worst, organizational culture relative to meetings completely ignores the opportunity cost of making people attend a meeting simply because it was called by someone senior to them, rather than considering the value of what the person might be doing differently at the same time. The more traditional the organization, the more common this dysfunction is and it’s a good lens into whether the culture values autonomy and the ROI on peoples’ time or, to the contrary, values hierarchy and ego.

Another example of bad meetings and dangerous culture can be found in “artificial harmony,” which causes more long-term damage than even unhealthy conflict. At least conflict, even if somewhat driven by hidden agendas, bad faith, or ego, results in challenges to accepted ideas, plans, etc. It generates dialogue that represents differing opinions, objectives, and values, which challenges pre-existing conclusions. And, to be clear, artificial harmony leads to conflict anyway because it is based upon a false commitment to what was “agreed” in the meeting. This happens almost immediately as people find ways to share what they really think in a hallway conversation or text message, etc., sometimes before they’re even back in their office! There is nothing worse than passive acceptance of a plan or strategy that some number of people don’t actually agree with (but didn’t say so), because when that happens, the organization commits resources and focus to a path that key people don’t actually support with their actions, or worse, may sabotage behind the scenes. And on top of that, the organization incurs the opportunity cost for the path not chosen! I personally believe that artificial harmony (and false agreement) result in more failed initiatives than the quality of the initiative itself. Even good ideas need full, shared commitment and effort to succeed.

Bad meetings also tend to be for poor reasons such as reporting mundane information that can be easily shared through other means, addressing trivial or pro-forma issues, confirming things that have already been addressed/decided, stroking the leader’s ego, because it’s on the schedule, or, for the worst purpose of all, which is calling people out publicly. Meeting agendas and behavior can tell us a lot about cultural values.

In contrast, in healthy organizations (and meetings) the desired outcome is not unanimous agreement and certainly not “false” agreement. The desired outcome is thorough due diligence in the decision process, with full participation, contribution, and hopefully disagreement by all involved, about issues of significance. When that happens, there is likely to be much deeper commitment to a better final decision, even by those who would have chosen a different path, because their opinion and input were carefully considered as part of the decision process. Simply being heard often offsets the disappointment of having a viewpoint that did not carry the day. Moreover, the active, even passionate sharing of multiple viewpoints inevitably results in positive modifications of the chosen idea, thus making it better than it would have been without contrasting input. And, of course, such meetings show alignment between healthy cultural values such as respect, collaboration, transparency, safety, and teamwork among others.

Good meetings:

  • invite the right people.
  • ask important questions about things that matter.
  • encourage and validate the contributions of participants.
  • involve robust discussion and even disagreement about those questions.
  • are non-hierarchical (expertise and commitment are more important than where someone is on the org chart).
  • result in allocation of resources, expertise, etc. to support agreed upon activities.
  • result in high-quality decisions that align with espoused organizational values.
  • include follow up for what was discussed/decided

When we see these kinds of interactions and behaviors in meetings, we can have confidence that organizational culture is relatively healthy—and probably more importantly—that the efforts of those involved are more likely to lead to positive outcomes.

You can see a good resource for conducting better meetings here.

Footnote

In my CEO roles I have always given my senior managers the autonomy to engage in another activity at the time I’ve called a meeting if they believe the alternative will support more important outcomes. I’ve rarely been taken advantage of and if my meeting is worth attending, people will typically be there. When given the chance to use their own professional judgment, in my experience, the choice to be somewhere else doing something else supporting a more important outcome than would come from attendance in “my” meeting is almost always the right decision. BTW, this is leadership 101. If a senior manager is not capable of making a decision about attending a meeting, she or he is certainly not capable of the senior manager role to begin with.

A Life Well Lived: Happiness vs. Purpose

Image credit: Trans4Mind

As part of my executive recruiting and consulting work, I have the pleasure of speaking with several seasoned professionals per week who are in some stage of “transition” in their personal and professional lives. While this has been accelerated by the COVID pandemic, the trend was in play even before the novel coronavirus upended our lives. Interestingly, even folks whose employment is stable are finding themselves in a very introspective and reflective place, questioning the extent to which their current efforts and commitments support outcomes that matter in some larger context vs. outcomes that simply achieve performance objectives or some other unsustainable definition of professional success. Certainly, the existential and life-changing nature of a global pandemic has pushed some of us to this place of introspection, but as with other trends, COVID-19 is probably more of an accelerant than a change agent in its own right.

When someone says they are looking for a professional change, I first ask them if they are just looking for a new job or if they are interested in exploring what they actually want to be true in their lives. Eight out of ten times the flood gates open and 45 minutes later they’ve shared a story of deep dissonance and conflict about what they’d like to be true vs. what is actually true.

The reality is that the youngest baby boomers and oldest millenials are now at a place where they have invested many years and even decades in professional careers, and starting even before the pandemic, many were beginning to ask themselves if all the long hours, sweat and sacrifices were time and effort well spent. Perhaps not surprisingly, a majority of the folks I talk to have come to the conclusion that if they had it all to do over again, they would focus less on things like status, money, climbing the professional ladder, and creating an image of the hard working, “I can do it all” professional, and more time and effort on things that support sustainability, wellness, human relationships, and make the world a better place. Many feel dissonance simply because so much of their work lives have been dedicated to other peoples’ agendas, often in environments in which values and culture were/are often misaligned with their own.

It’s not by chance that there is an almost universal “crisis of purpose” that hits people in mid life. The cumulative effect of living and working for decades in the absence of purpose, which is common in the Western world, where people frequently live to work rather than work to live, is to find oneself exhausted and divorced from a sense of meaning in employment. Most of us have accepted a Faustian pact which suggests that if we just work long enough and hard enough, we will be rewarded. The problem is that even when that comes true (and it often doesn’t), the rewards are usually material, which although “nice,” do not support the humanity in ourselves or others.

While there is a spectrum of reflection and dissonance from folks who are in outright crisis on the one hand vs. others who just don’t feel good about where they are and are actively thinking about how to change that, my sense is that the discord has become palpable for a very large percentage of people. This discord has likely been exacerbated by significant overlaying issues such as political divisiveness, climate change, racial disharmony, etc. I recently wrote an article about how this is affecting our mental health, which you can see here.

For some, the challenge is about how they can make a difference, while for others, who’ve done well professionally and financially, it falls under how they can “give back” after many years of nose to the grindstone work. Regardless, the status quo is no longer working for many of us. I suspect that part of the problem is that we were all sold a bill of goods about what “success” in life and work was supposed to look like. Many of us have also probably gone down the wrong path in our pursuit of a “good life,” which in the West at least, is unsustainably based on things like never-ending material acquisitions and pursuit of status, which we’ve erroneously thought would lead to happiness. In fact, happiness itself may not even be the right objective.

To paraphrase the great poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, the key to a life well-lived is not happiness. It’s purpose. He goes on to say that it should make a difference that you have lived. Based on the many, many people with whom I’ve communicated (if not commiserated) over the last several months, it’s clear that what most of us are doing now is not working in terms of feeling validated and nourished in our professional lives. We seem to be intuitively feeling what Emerson said—that without some meaningful purpose, hard work or possessions or status by themselves will not provide us spiritual sustenance. For the many folks who wake up one day realizing that they have not been sustained by purpose or achieved “happiness,” that can be a jarring and disconcerting realization.

For me personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that my efforts need to primarily be driven by the extent to which my relationships with others are additive and positive for them as well as the extent to which my own efforts make the world a better place. Of course, that is aspirational, but it seems to provide far more internal consonance, and a much more admirable vision, than what I built much of my previous career on. Fortunately, I have often “done well by doing good,” but I’ve also given the best of myself at times to other peoples’ agendas, more than once in organizations whose values did not align with my own.

Making a change is not easy because it also requires a reassessment of things we’ve built deep narratives around such as what success looks like, what really matters to us (time, relationships, things, status, integrity, etc.), and what changes we’re willing to accept in the way we live our lives, since trading money for time or status for wellness will have downstream implications that go beyond creating greater consonance and purpose. On the other hand, when it’s all said and done, the only thing you leave behind of value is your legacy. How many hours you worked, what your title was, or how much you paid for your car will not only be irrelevant, if that’s your legacy, then it may not “make a difference that you lived.” Ouch.

Magical Thinking Crashes into Harsh Reality

I wrote an article several weeks ago about all the magical thinking that had been employed in colleges and universities that had decided to bring students back for the fall term. I noted that it wasn’t the lack of good ideas or plans that was the problem—although lack of resources was clear in many cases. The problem was (and is) that otherwise really smart people were deluding themselves into believing that they could actually get college students to comply with those plans. We’ve now seen these plans blow up from coast to coast with universities cancelling their plans just before or within days of students showing up. Big names such as Notre Dame, the University of North Carolina, and Michigan State have all reversed their plans before they could even achieve a single week of instruction on campus and public health experts have said they expect the same dynamic to repeat itself broadly across the country in the coming weeks. At a college in my hometown of Colorado Springs, an entire residence hall went into 14-day quarantine after the first day of students moving in. The fact that a student tested positive for COVID on the first day was not a surprise. That was inevitable as students bring the virus with them. The problem was that other students in the dorm could not manage to follow the physical distancing and mask protocols for even the first few hours they were on campus, so all 155 residents had to be quarantined! There will now be other individuals who must bring food and other necessities to students in a locked down residence hall for the next two weeks.

To be fair, many colleges made plans for fall instruction on campus from a place of good intentions. In fact, that’s what most traditional students want themselves. And to be clear, some number of schools will manage to operate something approximating an academic term with some students on campus this fall. However, many schools were simply deluding themselves about what was possible and/or overly influenced by desperation around enrollment and revenue (or, in the case of the North Carolina schools, political pressure). I had a front row seat to some of those conversations and the rationalizations and group think was palpable. What is really problematic about the failed effort to bring students back to campus, however, is that collectively, the schools attempting face to face instruction have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on their plans to make face to face attendance possible, when in many cases, it was never going to work—and by definition, they were not planning to deliver the best possible remote instruction, which they now have to do anyway. The opportunity cost of wishful thinking for those who have reversed course and those who will do so soon is staggering. Just imagine if those same schools had spent all of that money and time on improving online instruction and services or on reductions in cost for students so they could attend at a distance in a more affordable way. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of students have traveled to campuses across the country, only to be told to pack up and go back home. That not only creates a significant financial and logistical strain for many, but a really bad idea relative to spreading the virus as well. It was bad enough that people converged on campus communities from all over the country, in many cases bringing the virus with them; they’re now going back or will go back to their home communities after possibly being exposed to the coronavirus on campus or during travel!

As the old country western song goes, “You got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.” Folding now, as many institutions are doing is of course the right thing to do. Using good and courageous judgment a couple months ago (as some did) would have been much better.

Why Outsourcing Some Tasks, Projects, and Functions Is More Critical Than Ever

Image credit: Entreprenuer.com

One of the realities of the COVID-19 crisis is that many organizations have “circled the wagons” and have stopped purchasing services from vendors. Part of this is simply to preserve cash, but unfortunately these decisions rarely include an ROI analysis of a given expense. When times are flush, companies and other organizations tend to apply much less scrutiny to procurement, whether that is for products or services. When times are hard, they often create byzantine approval processes for even the most basic purchases, which, while achieving the purpose of spending less, also compromises agility and customer outcomes, and requires that senior people spend precious time on low level, low impact decisions. This dynamic also has a serious impact on decisions to outsource certain tasks, projects or functions, such as research, legal services, marketing, recruiting, etc. Unfortunately, whether in good times or hard times, these decisions are rarely based on a solid rationale or set of principles and more often end up being based on rote requirements, previously allocated funds or financial thresholds such as how much a given manager position can spend without subsequent approval from someone “higher up.”

It would make much more sense if the decision to outsource a given task or project were based on a set of principles that assess benefit to the organization (and its end users) rather than on cost alone, which in isolation, can lead to really poor decisions. Some examples include:

  • Would outsourcing a task or project allow the organization to deploy internal resources and people to things that can create more value by being done internally?
  • Would outsourcing solve a problem or support a capability more quickly than doing it internally, particularly if the outcome can be monetized or affects customers directly?
  • Would outsourcing a task, project, or function increase existing revenue or create access to a new revenue stream?
  • Would outsourcing materially decrease cost without compromising quality or the end user experience?
  • Would outsourcing allow the organization to complete tasks or projects in parallel rather than serially, thus shortening timelines?
  • Would outsourcing a task or project effectively meet a customer need, either more quickly, more efficiently, or with higher quality than doing it internally?

The core principle for making outsourcing decisions, which I learned from a very successful entrepreneur and CEO with whom I used to work is as follows. If the stakes of a given task or project are high, but the requirements of completing the the task or project are not a core competency of the organization, then it’s time to rely on outside experts for whom it is a core competency. He added that this often happens with things that are really important, but also episodic. An example he used is executive recruiting. The organization cannot afford to get it wrong, but it also cannot afford to build and maintain an internal core competency for an activity that only happens every few years, which is the case for C-Suite hires. In such a case, retaining the right executive search firm is a way to benefit from expertise and core competency, while only paying for it when you need it. Note that as with any outsourcing decision, I purposely said the “right” executive search firm. Many of the large, traditional firms are very well resourced, but they are often structured in ways that make it very difficult for them to deliver the game changing leaders that all organizations need today.

The reality is that, within reason, cost should rarely be the driving force in a decision to outsource a task, project, or function, partly due to outcomes, but probably more importantly, because the expense of outsourcing tends to be variable rather than fixed, which, in the end, provides greater budget flexibility even if cost is temporarily incremental. Cost should almost always be subordinate to issues such as time/speed, low stakes-high stakes, competency, agility, efficiency, disruption/distraction, quality, etc. In fact, the proper use of outsourcing can be a critical competitive advantage, particularly in a high-change, turbulent operating environment, because it allows for the quick acquisition of core competencies, but without a long-term obligation to fixed cost.

While some organizations worry about how customers will react to outsourcing, in the end, a firm’s clients tend to be agnostic about how a company or organization meets their needs and expectations relative to the role of outsourcing as long as the outcome is good and the company maintains full accountability, even for third party work. You can outsource work, but you can’t outsource responsibility!

In short, it is a mistake for organizations to think so conservatively that they sacrifice long-term revenue dollars for short-term expense nickels. Particularly in a time of crisis, access to highly specific, even esoteric competencies can not only support operations during crisis, but it can support a successful transition to a sustainable post-COVID new normal by maintaining customer confidence now while providing band width for innovation in the future.

The Decision to Bring Students Back to Campus Includes an Inescapable Moral Component

As educational institutions plan to serve students in the fall, the decisions they make must be about more than enrollment and revenue—or even health and safety. Obviously, just about everyone wants things to be “back to normal” as soon as possible. Moreover, some institutions are so financially fragile that operating from a distance, with lower enrollments and decreased revenues from campus operations, creates genuine financial exigency, but even in those cases, the final decisions about where and how to serve students cannot be based solely on financial outcomes. At some meaningful level, the decisions must be based on what is right under the circumstances, even if what is right fails to meet the desires of some constituencies, exacerbates financial challenges, or even puts an institution’s survival at risk.

As Michael Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas noted in an article in the Atlantic, “If a school’s cost-benefit analysis [about opening] leads to a conclusion that includes the term ‘acceptable number of casualties,’ it is time for a new model.” He goes on to say, “Because we do not yet have the ability to bring students and staff back to campus while keeping them safe and healthy, we simply cannot return to business as usual. To do so constitutes an abdication of our moral responsibility as leaders (emphasis mine).”

Dr. Sorrell’s commentary is one of the very few I have seen out of probably a hundred articles and essays that so straightforwardly addresses the moral imperative that should be at the core of any decision a college or university makes to bring students (and associated faculty and staff) back on campus. And, he wrote his thoughtful treatise back in May, before the recent, predictable, and explosive resurgence of the novel coronavirus. We have seen that even with small student populations on campus during the summer, hotspots have blown up in a matter of days at dozens of institutions across the country, most of which have been driven by students failing to engage in social distancing and mask wearing, particularly in off-campus venues–over 6,600 cases across the country. In other words, young students are behaving precisely the way they always have despite the myriad safety measures that have supposedly been put in place. Even in highly supervised and well-resourced situations such as sports practices, institutions such as Clemson University and LSU had to shut down football practices because the number of positive tests for COVID-19 was so high on those teams.

Due to my consulting work and my 30 plus year network of relationships with many folks across higher education, I have had a close view into the decision making process in many schools around how they intend to operate in the fall. First of all, people are working really, really hard to develop and implement their plans, whatever they are. On the other hand, many of these same folks are very much “head down,” buried in the tactical, and giving little attention to the strategic and the long-term. That is understandable in the context of the overwhelming challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic and crisis. What is less understandable is how many folks are still relying on “magical thinking” as part of their efforts to bring students, faculty, and staff back on campus for the fall term. In some cases, core strategies to keep people safe are simply nonsensical, such as expecting students to limit elevators to four people, while facing opposite corners, or expecting students to get their own COVID tests at their own expense before the term. Even if students did comply initially, which is highly unlikely, those tests will be meaningful for a very short point in time. Other examples I have seen included things such as asking students to volunteer as “safety monitors,” who will supposedly confront other students who are not following the rules and asking students to commit to social distancing, mask wearing, and avoiding interactions with groups while off campus. Good luck with those plans.

In a working paper from Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania, which modeled different infection transmission scenarios at a typical large university, the authors found that even with nearly 100% compliance with the most effective strategies and essentially zero off-campus interactions (impossible), there would still be students and faculty who would contract COVID-19 and the study didn’t even model how faculty might spread the disease to other faculty or staff. And, shockingly, the study found that if no precautions were taken at all, COVID would spread to nearly 100% of the university population before the end of the semester. This is because the “normal” behavior on and off college campuses combined with how those institutions are structured to begin with, create an almost perfect environment for the spread of a corona virus. What we can assume with high confidence is that any institution that brings people back into a face to face scenario in the fall will end up somewhere between perfect execution of, and compliance with, preventative measures, and a total failure to do so. In other words, a typical institution is more likely to experience much less optimistic infection rates. Unfortunately, there is another profoundly important element of COVID-19 response required of colleges and universities which relates to how they support students and other members of a college community once they test positive and are quarantined. This is another place I’ve seen magical thinking, with institutions that have limited or no on-site healthcare resources thinking that they will effectively care for students who cannot leave a dorm room or apartment, on or off-campus, let alone the ability to determine, with any clinical expertise, whether someone is sick enough to require acute medical care.

The reality we are facing today, therefore, is that it is essentially impossible to bring people onto a college campus and ensure that no one will contract COVID-19. To be fair, we could say the same about influenza or mononucleosis or many other contagious diseases. However, addressing COVID-19 by itself, since it is impossible to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved, what is the number of illnesses or even deaths that a college is willing to accept in order to have people back on campus? No matter what other efforts are in place, it is impossible to get around this core question for any institution that intends to have students on campus. And, when you address that question, you have entered the realm of decisions that, as president Sorrell noted, fall under moral responsibility. To be clear, this does not mean that a decision to serve some number of students on campus is immoral. What it means is that such a decision cannot be made without addressing an inevitable moral component. For Dr. Sorrell and Paul Quinn College, their conclusion was that bringing folks back was not tenable.

I’ve been the president of several institutions of higher education and I have personally experienced very difficult dilemmas. As someone once said, being a CEO often requires you to choose between bad and catastrophic. Some days are just brutal. But, if a college president, executive team, or board of trustees cannot look each other in the eye and agree that there is some inevitable number of casualties, and that they are okay with that, then they cannot bring people back on campus for the fall term. If there is agreement on an acceptable number of casualties, then an institution’s leadership is also assuming moral responsibility for the outcomes, having decided that the ensuing benefit was greater than the risk to people’s health and safety. No amount of magical thinking will change that reality.

Wellbeing During Crisis: Taking Care of the People in Organizations

Image Credit: UA Little Rock

We know intuitively that the COVID-19 crisis has posed challenges to our mental health and overall wellbeing, but most of us are not aware of the extent of the problem. Even before the pandemic, we were more stressed than at any time since the American Psychological Association began tracking stress levels among Americans. The combination of mass shootings, climate change, and deep political divisiveness was taking a deep toll. The addition of the coronavirus crisis has presented further challenges and, as noted in a recent report on NPR, “as many as 75,000 more people will die from drug or alcohol misuse and suicide” as a direct result of the deleterious effects of COVID on the mental health of Americans. If you are an executive, you are statistically more likely than not to be experiencing mental health challenges and the population at large has reached out to mental health counselors and therapists at more than double the normal rate since February.

As Dr. Tom Insel, former Director of the National Institute of Mental health noted in a recent Newsweek article,

“We’ve never seen a moment where the demand for mental health care will be as great as it’s going to be in the next few months and next couple of years. If you add the spike in suicides and drug overdoses we are likely to see to those we were already expecting, the psychological toll from deaths of despair in the months ahead could very likely surpass the final mortality numbers for COVID.”

In short:

  • Those who had mental health issues before the pandemic are likely to have deeper challenges now.
  • Many who had no mental health symptoms, now have them.
  • We are spending more time in a fight or flight status, resulting in what is known as “stress response hyperstimulation,” which makes us more susceptible to anxiety and depression.
  • Everyone is stressed out.

So, take a deep breath and know that, one, there are good reasons for feeling how you are likely feeling, and two, you are not alone! Moreover, and this is really important, consciously addressing wellbeing is essential to supporting the viability of organizations themselves. Doing so will build better resilience, dedication, and loyalty among the people that make organizations function, increasing the likelihood that those organizations will survive and thrive going forward.

How does all of this relate to the workplace in general and higher education in particular?

Crisis GraphicFirst of all, the crisis itself is extraordinary. It is severe, long-term, existential, and it will fundamentally change how we work and deliver education long after COVID is resolved. It truly merits the phrase “unprecedented.”

Secondly, the crisis simultaneously turned our personal/family lives upside down as well, creating layers of intense challenges and stress—and for most people, that doesn’t even include the virus itself.

In the midst of this overwhelming reality, virtually everyone employed in any role in an institution of post-secondary education had to completely convert how they teach and serve their students, in many cases in the absence of appropriate technology, training, or time to prepare. On one hand, what was achieved was remarkable—and also unprecedented. On the other hand, this came at no small cost to the people involved—and it only offered a temporary bridge to close out the spring semester—many folks are doing it all over again preparing for the fall semester, but in a more sustainable way. And all of this is happening in the face of severe financial exigency across much of higher education.

Supporting Wellbeing in a Time of Crisis

So, we know what the reality is, but what can we do about it?

Fortunately, as overwhelming as the challenges are, there are best practices for supporting wellbeing and wellness within organizations. We also know what the components are of healthy organizations.

Organizational Health

Organizational health is not about performance, although achieving goals can support morale and community. Organizational health is about supporting the well-being of the people who make up the human element of the organization. Elements of a healthy organization include:

Transparency, honesty, fairness, support, collegiality, shared values and, importantly, recognition and support of the physical and emotional needs of the folks that make up the institution. 

Organizational Culture

As with many other issues, in the absence of a culture that supports wellbeing, new efforts to do so will be compromised and likely not be sustainable. Some simple examples include things like actually believing that people are an organization’s greatest asset and treating them that way, supporting collaboration and collegiality, valuing autonomy and empowerment, and recognizing that in the current environment, there is no clear line between work and home life, so don’t expect it. Since culture is a leadership responsibility, the most fundamental element of wellbeing within an organization belongs to its leadership.

Wellness

Components of WellnessAlthough there are multiple models for thinking about wellness, a simple one that I have used in the past involves five elements: Physical, Mental, Spiritual, Financial, and Social. We cannot separate mind, body, and spirit, either in our private lives or as it relates to wellness in the workplace.

It is within the purview and capability of leadership in all kinds of organizations to support these five domains and thus support wellness. In some ways, educational institutions are even more amenable than others to purposeful efforts to generate wellness. Assuming that that organizational culture is supportive, there can be policy prescriptions to directly support the domains of wellness described here, which will be discusses later in the article.

Strategies for Supporting Organizational Health, Wellness and Mental Health

Strategies for Organizational Health

Fortunately, the strategies for supporting organizational health are not complicated. Assuming a supportive culture and leadership, the key is simply making the commitment and executing on the effort. In a time of crisis in particular, it is important to conduct non-business check-ins with employees. This can be at the beginning of meetings or through regular outreach, but the point is that there needs to be time dedicated to communicating with employees about how they are doing, separately from their work responsibilities. Other examples include providing time for mindfulness and physical health, without penalty for actually taking the time! It is also important to find opportunities for celebration of things big and small, providing flexibility for “real-life” issues, and supporting social connection even if at a distance.

Strategies for Stress

As simple as it is, one of the most important things leaders can do to help mitigate stress in their employees (and themselves) is to give permission to be human. As Kit Krugman, head of organization and culture design at qz.com recently noted, “Until recently, the predominant advice to managing your emotions at work was: Don’t have them….Ultimately, we allowed the guise of professionalism to eclipse the emotional experience of being human at work.” This Faustian pact was not sustainable even before COVID, but now it’s frankly dangerous. Other strategies include finding ways to provide stability and reduce fear and offering direct encouragement. This can be verbally or with written communications. Hand-written notes are very powerful precisely because they have become so rare. Again, success depends on formally building time into the daily schedule to actually engage in these activities.

There are a number of other specific areas of focus to mitigate stress and support wellbeing in the workplace and at home. They include:

  • Adequate Sleep
  • Healthy diet
  • Physical exercise
  • Mindfulness
  • Calming activities
  • Positive relationships (and avoidance of toxic relationships)
  • Limiting social media and news
  • Emotional fidelity (simply allowing yourself to express what you feel)
  • Gratitude
  • Spiritual pursuits

Strategies for Wellness

Based on the five-point model I shared above, there is a very simple process for supporting one’s own wellness, which requires identifying high level strategies for each of the five domains as well as a simple daily activity or two for each domain. It is not necessary to support every domain every day, but your goal should be at least one activity per week in each area. The tables below are an easy, low tech way to do this.

Supporting Wellness

Policies for Wellness

Within organizations, it is necessary to have policies and to devote resources specifically for wellness. It doesn’t work if it’s not purposeful. Some examples include: unrestricted use of paid time off, paid time for wellness activities, i.e., supporting activities during the workday, and dedicated wellness resources such as employee assistance plans and health checks. Again, this is a leadership responsibility.

Interactions at Work

Almost all of us are currently “on the edge.” We are more sensitive to triggers of all kinds, with less bandwidth to absorb negative interactions. Because of this, we all (and particularly managers and leaders) must recalibrate how we engage with others, regardless of the topic. When dealing with a “problem,” we must be even more thoughtful. For example, rather than beginning a discussion right away with the issue itself, 1) start from a place of empathy, being supportive, 2) then solicit feedback from the person about the issue at hand (and genuinely listen). 3) Only then address the problem or issue, with a focus on a positive outcome rather than on what is/was wrong.

The Role of Self-Compassion

Empathy Heart

Something that is rarely spoken about, but essential to wellbeing, particularly during a time of crisis, is self-compassion. This literally means being kind to ourselves. The reason this is so important is because in the absence of self-compassion, we cannot give ourselves the space to be vulnerable and authentic. We are also less likely to directly support our own wellbeing, which will make us much less capable of supporting others. We are socialized to be self-critical and to see self-care as “selfish,” which is disastrous in a time of crisis. You can find helpful tools at https://self-compassion.org/.

Supporting Mental Health

Lastly, in terms of being purposeful about organizational health and wellness, we cannot achieve high level results unless we specifically acknowledge the mental health needs of the people in organizations, which, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, can literally be a life and death issue. This does not mean that managers and leaders (and everyone else) must play the role of mental health provider. To the contrary. What is required is compassion and a commitment to create an environment that overtly supports mental health. Some key examples include:

  • Destigmatize mental health and put it on the same playing field as physical health.
  • Recognize that wellness (and mental health) cannot be compartmentalized between personal life and work.
  • End the absurdity of productivity (or worse, business) as worth and replace it with sustainable human values such as compassion, kindness, honesty, and integrity.
  • Encourage people to seek help and support them once they do.

What Followers Need from Leaders

In addition to the broad discussion about supporting wellbeing in organizations, there are very specific requirements and responsibilities for leaders. Global research by Gallup found that in times of crisis, in addition to the “nuts and bolts” of solving the problem and getting back to normal, employees have key emotional needs that they look to leadership to meet: trust, compassion, stability, and hope. When those needs are met, employees are much better prepared to accomplish the hard work at hand.

Leaders need to be seen as human themselves and be seen supporting humanity in the organization. They can do so by expressing vulnerability, authenticity, compassion, and empathy. Relative to organizational health and employee wellbeing, emotional intelligence is much more important than “executive” skills.

Doing Right Now Will be Your Legacy in the Future

As truly difficult as the current situation is, including distressingly hard decisions about how to use finite resources, the decisions that leaders make today will inform the organization’s legacy going forward. Those that stay true to core values and put people first will be rewarded in the future. Those that do not will pay a high price. As Mark Cuban noted in a recent interview, “The way companies treat their employees in times like these will be their defining feature in the coming months and years.”

Conclusion

Everyone has a unique “emotional metabolism,” meaning that we process psychological distress at different rates and in different ways. Having said that, we are now experiencing near universal stress and challenges to our mental health, almost certainly unrivaled in modern times. Because our minds and bodies are inextricably connected, we are also experiencing physical symptoms and illness as well.

While no one would choose to be in the current crisis, it provides an opportunity to think much more boldly and purposely about how organizations can and should support the wellbeing of the people that comprise the humanity in them—and not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it will also support sustainable community after we have transitioned from the heart of the COVID crisis. As Brené Brown has noted, “either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.” It is my personal hope that this crisis will permanently end the absurd and false notion we’ve lived under forever that being “professional” means giving up our humanity and that our personal lives and work lives must both be our top priority at all times. The Faustian pact was never sustainable. It just took a global pandemic to pull back the curtain on the fallacy.

And, importantly, as I noted in my recent webinar on Leadership in a Time of Crisis, managing crisis includes a moral imperative. Organizations that meet that test will not only enjoy a legacy worth having, they will be populated with human capital that is dedicated, loyal, and resilient, and that is a long-term legacy and competitive advantage that can only be earned; it can’t be bought.

I can assist institutions with recruitment of game changing leadership and with building the capacity to support wellness and overall wellbeing. To discuss what that might look like in your organization, contact me directly at wallace@topgunventures.com, wkp@wallacekpond.com, or at 303.386.7134.