I was recently on a call onboarding a new team member with whom I’d been working on the COVID-19 research. The research was about what leaders needed to do for their people. It was during this call when the weight of my colleague’s COVID-19 situation really hit me. He’d been hired a few months before the lockdown in New York City, the epicenter of the US’s outbreak.

On the day we spoke, he hadn’t been outside for 35 days. Thirty-five days.

I had another realization on that call: It’s harder to be a compassionate leader than it is to tell people to be compassionate leaders.

"It isn’t an easy time for anyone, leaders included, yet leadership has never been so important"


The people who study people

Some have a perception that researchers spend their lives looking at the data, disconnected from our subjects. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The human experience at work is a core component of what we behaviorists research, and we also work with people. That means our work is messy, malleable and causes constantly changing hypotheses. To solve real-world problems, we must go interact with the world — moving beyond the data to actually experience what’s going on.

As an organizational behaviorist working on Human resilience: What your people need during COVID-19 , and a human experiencing how hard it was to lead during that stressful time, I approached our research as a behaviorist, a team leader, and as an individual sheltering in place—bringing my whole person to deal with the challenges and changes that COVID brought to bear.

It isn’t an easy time for anyone, leaders included, yet leadership has never been so important.

Leading in times of crisis

Our research found that during a crisis like COVID-19, people look to leaders for compassion, care and confidence in navigating the company into the future. The research showed that the top two things you have to get right to meet people’s needs at all times, but especially in a crisis:

  1. Meet your people’s needs with compassion.
  2. Lead in a way in which your team has confidence in you and their company’s ability.

That’s easier said than done. Over index in one direction or the other, and you miss the mark.

Research shows the way

Our research was created to help chief human resources officers, CEOs and boards navigate the leadership challenges in this new reality. We share a few brief insights from Accenture workforce research spanning 15,600+ global workers in 10 countries and 15 industries.

Hierarchy of human needs

Our study highlights what workers need from leaders in three basic areas: physical, mental and relational. These needs apply at all times, but they are magnified in crisis. Leaders who rise to the challenge will help their people develop human resilience — the ability to adapt and engage through difficult times.

For example, it’s easy in fast-moving environments to forgo collaborative behaviors and start making decisions without your team’s input. I know in times of crisis I enter driver mode.

But we know from research that people best respond when they are involved from the beginning, when they feel their voice is being heard and valued, and when they feel empowered with real-time information.

All these things require visible and participatory leadership. While my initial instinct was to lessen meeting loads and forgo weekly team check-ins to focus on the “real work” during COVID-19, that quickly proved to be counterproductive. When the people side starts to slip so do the processes, communication and ironically, the work.

Thriving teams in uncertain times

As many of us have experienced working from home during COVID, there’s been a blurring of the line between the personal and the professional. Children and pets make appearances in the background during important calls. We’ve gotten to see each other as more human and now more than ever it’s clear we need to prioritize people first.

How to do that? Here are some thoughts:

  • Businesses need to ensure their stakeholders (including employees, contractors and suppliers) and the community are being taken care of. Distilled to one essential message: people need to trust leadership to do the right thing.
  • Be transparent and consistent in your communication. COVID-19 has amplified miscommunication. Having steady and frank communications will instill trust in your people.
  • Communicate often and don’t shy away from the hard realities of a crisis. This is a perfect time to practice vulnerability and engage in a shared human experience.
  • Look to the data as it informs more healthy human workplaces. The more we understand human behavior at work with science, not with biases, the better we get at designing workspaces and policies.

They say those can’t do, teach. As a researcher, it is easy to enter teaching mode but harder to put people first when that gets personally challenging. As a people leader, I often fall short on what my own talent research illuminates. But each day I look at a sticky note on my computer — compassion + confidence = trust.

We know from the science these are necessary for people to be their best selves at work. And so, before I enter into “driver mode”, this sticky note reminds me to first ask about my teammates — many struggling with profound physical, mental and relational needs — before asking them about their to-do list.

This document is intended for general informational purposes only and does not take into account the reader’s specific circumstances, and may not reflect the most current developments. Accenture disclaims, to the fullest extent permitted by applicable law, any and all liability for the accuracy and completeness of the information in this presentation and for any acts or omissions made based on such information. Accenture does not provide legal, regulatory, audit, or tax advice. Readers are responsible for obtaining such advice from their own legal counsel or other licensed professionals.

Kelly Monahan, Ph.D.

Talent Research Lead Senior Principal at Accenture Research

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