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Coming hard on the heels of an undeniably difficult year, 2021 kicked off with insurrection in the United States capital, a historic inauguration, and the announcement of a precedent setting second impeachment trial. After both the insurrection and the inauguration, I spoke to several friends and colleagues who had been unable to focus on work for more than a few minutes the entire day. Fearful or joyful, the events of each day had simply overwhelmed their attention and ability to focus.
One conversation, however, raised a very different set of questions. Faced with the responsibility of determining corporate, rather than individual, responses this individual had asked himself, “How can, and should, a business respond to external events?” While it would be nice to believe that the impeachment trial will be the last time in 2021 that our attention is ripped from the immediacy of our work and homes by the news, this seems highly unlikely. Therefore, leaders would be well served to pause and proactively consider how they wish to respond to this question moving forward.
A great place to start is by reviewing your response to the most recent crises. I know of one leader who sent out an email to their team fairly quickly after the insurrection began encouraging individual self care. Recognizing that everyone handles stress differently, she suggested that those who would prefer to dive into work and ignore the news do so but that anyone who needed space to process what was happening take a step back for the day. Another leader refrained from proactively making suggestions to their team but accepted when employees reached out saying that they needed to take personal time. From others, there was a simple demand that business proceed as usual.
Chances are good that one of those responses resonated with you. Many of us would like to believe that there is a single, right answer and that I am about to share it with you. Unfortunately, the reality is a bit more complicated. While a systematic approach might be desirable, being able to lay out a black and white process that says “in case of X, do / say Y” is more difficult than it appears. For example, we could respond to the most recent crises by saying, “In cases of insurrection, employees are encouraged to focus on self-care” and then there will be clarity for the next insurrection. But what about the next protest that is met with police violence? Is every protest where violence breaks out on par with insurrection? Does the impeachment trial about fomenting the insurrection count? Where is the line?
Perhaps the policy then becomes, “In extreme political circumstances, employees are encouraged to focus on self-care”. But how does one define extreme? Who even has the right to answer that question? Even looking retrospectively, at what point on the day of the insurrection did the events cross the threshold? When would such a policy have been enacted given clear guidelines and all the knowledge of hindsight? Identifying that a single situation or circumstance met an undefined standard only opens the question of when that standard will be met again in the future.
This was the sentiment that stuck with me the longest after my discussion about corporate responses. I was fresh out of a conversation with a friend who had been wondering how any organization could justify silence after the insurrection. Honestly, I had found myself agreeing with my friend and judging the silences. But as I found myself in conversation with someone who had done exactly that, I found that I had no answer to the questions that had held his hand: What gives a company the right to define the impact of a moment? Should a company be the arbiter of what is “worthy” of acknowledgement?
For some organizations, this is a moot point – whether by choice or by circumstance, a few situations do allow for black-and-white. ICUs must continue to care for their patients. But for most of us, the best we can do is take a step back and return to the basics. What are the fundamental tenets of our culture? What are the values we espouse as an organization? With those answers front of mind, we can then ask ourselves if there is a clear guideline we can create. Coinbase recently made headlines with their hard line, anti-political stance and the answer may be equally clear for your own team.
In most cases, however, the best we can do is to create rough guidelines that articulate our culture and values in terms of responding to external circumstances. A statement such as, “Our core value of compassion means that we will choose to err on the side of employee self care” or “Our core value of ‘customers first’ means that we will choose to err on the side of service continuity” can simplify decision making in the future. No policy or response will ever be perfect but we can choose the criteria by which we will evaluate our decisions and determine up front the types of ‘mistakes’ that will minimize our regrets and self-recriminations.
I would love to believe that an article about Situational Leadership as it pertains to decision making around external events being published today is “too late” to be of much use to corporate leaders in American. While I fervently hope that the next few weeks, at least, will be less tumultuous for my country than the first few days of 2021, I fear that we are only in a lull. On the plus side, a lull offers an opportunity to pause, reflect and plan for when tumult returns. Taking the time now to evaluate our past responses and create guidelines for the future may minimize confusion as the rest of the year unfolds.