At a time when workers feel threats all around them–pandemic, economic, emotional–strong leadership is needed more than ever. But what kind of leadership is best suited to a situation where the future is so uncertain and our current reality keeps changing?
The kind of leaders who make their employees feel safe, according to Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. While no leader has a crystal ball to predict when our uncertainty will end, Edmondson has compelling suggestions about how workplace leadership can evolve and adapt to current-day demands.
In conversation with Sharon Epperson, CNBC’s senior personal finance correspondent, Edmondson shared key insights from her book during From Day One’s September virtual conference. While The Fearless Organization was published in 2019, before the pandemic, the lessons hold true today: fearless, empathetic and authentic leaders contribute to a productive work environment that can also weather disruption and uncertainty.
This year has put even strong leadership values to the test–“The phrase that is sticking in my mind this year is to be patient. This year is different,” Edmondson said. The one silver lining, she noted, is that we now recognize leaders everywhere–not just in the C-suite–and our concept of strong leaders is radically changing.
Top-down, patriarchal leadership styles are far from what we need today, according to Edmondson. “We can get through this as long as we minimize the truly counterproductive impacts of fear and maximize our creativity, compassion, our empathy.”
Any strategy from a leadership team should start in that honest, human space. From there, leaders need to make space for what their employees are going through and adapt accordingly. One strategy Edmondson recommended is establishing multimodal communications, from digital chats to phone check-ins, as well as recording all virtual meetings. It’ll give employees more flexibility to access information in different ways and at different times.
During stressful company decisions like restructuring or layoffs, leaders should resist their instinct to downplay the situation or avoid it altogether. “Leaders come clean … it’s about making the message clear,” she said. “Hiding is not your best solution.” The same attitude of straightforward honesty will help as employees navigate returning to offices, she noted.
The decision to go beyond top-down declarations applies as well to today’s social-justice movement. Employees increasingly expect their employers to take a stand. Companies need to admit when their leaders don’t necessarily have the answers to issues of racism, as well as acknowledge that many diversity initiatives haven’t translated to true inclusion, Edmondson said.
“Setting the stage and articulating this as a truly important aspect of our values and what we’re trying to make progress on,” she said, “starts at the very top. A multifaceted, diverse team needs to go ahead and start listening more broadly to get that work done.”
Fearless organizations are the minority in American business, Edmondson observed. But she shared examples of companies getting things right: Barry-Wehmiller Companies, a global supplier of manufacturing technology and services, and Pixar, the animated-film studio. At Barry-Wehmiller, workers are empowered and trusted, with the company giving them a say in capital decisions. Pixar is known for an internal culture of openness and honesty, viewed as an important component to developing a strong product.
As Edmondson pointed out, there’s significant data that a culture of fearless leadership not only creates a healthier work environment, it leads to better performance. And when a workplace culture of fear and secrecy goes on too long, it’s bound to impact public perception. (Volkswagen cheating on its government emissions tests is one example Edmondson brought up.)
As we continue to adapt to uncertain times, the qualities of fearless organizations will increasingly be sought out by potential employees. Epperson, who also teaches at Columbia University, imagined those students bringing up the values of a fearless organization in job interviews. “What is the definition that they want to hear back from that hiring manager?” she asked.
“They want to know this is an organization where you matter,” responded Edmondson. “Your voice matters, your ideas matter, and we will be committed to your growth and development.”
Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.