Leadership During the Recovery
Published: Jun 24, 2021
By: Jennifer Moss
But what should leaders do in the meantime? In a world
where exhausted leaders are leading exhausted teams,
it’s been a year like no other. With no frame of reference to
guide decisions, many were flying blind. It’s therefore not
surprising that errors in judgment or mistakes were made
along the way.
Despite the desire otherwise, leaders are not impervious.
Most are balancing many of the same stressors their people
face every day. It has been tough on everyone.
The question now becomes, how can we sustainably lead
teams today and in the aftermath of the pandemic?
First, it’s time to stop acting like it’s still an emergency.
An emergency, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “an
unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting
state that calls for immediate action.” And yet, the pandemic
is no longer unforeseen. It is no longer a surprise.
Organizations need to assess whether the stopgap tactics
that were put in place in March 2020 still make sense. The
toothpaste can’t be forced back into the tube. The future of
work is now and there is no turning back.
The first step is to analyze why some leaders handle the
storm better than others—why they understand that the
rain can’t be stopped, so instead they carry the best
umbrella. It most often boils down to psychological fitness.
MODELING THE BEHAVIOR
Psychological fitness—also referred to as emotional
intelligence—is the ability to strengthen the neural pathways
that lead to the most accurate and unbiased thoughts. It
also requires breaking down existing patterns of behavior to
experience and display healthier emotions more regularly than
negative ones. The concept was originally developed to help
military professionals better handle the emotional burdens
experienced during combat. We now see it permeating
leadership development in all industries and sectors.
To be psychologically fit, however, leaders need to model
the behaviors they want to see in their people. That means
prioritizing individual self-care—something leaders are
notoriously bad at. Of all the times to reconsider that
behavior, it would be now. After a year of chronic stress and
fatigue, where one’s recovery will enable the recovery of others, self-compassion will be key. Arguably, it’s the only
way to mentally get through the next year.
Leading with both self-compassion and empathy means being
tuned into your personal needs as well as the needs of the
workforce. This requires having more self-awareness, asking
questions of others, removing bias, and actively listening,
essentially thwarting stress and burnout before it’s too far
gone, and having the humility to adjust to the moment. In times
of crisis, particularly through this last year, making quick
pivots was how many companies survived and then thrived.
For anyone who considers empathy a soft skill, note this: It
takes intention, effort, and strength to lead with compassion.
It’s worth it, but it is most certainly not easy. Here are a few
suggestions to get started.
UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN
HYGIENE AND MOTIVATION
The word “hygiene,” for most, means cleaning your teeth,
taking regular showers, and brushing your hair. These are
the usual things done to maintain physical health, so routine
they become subconscious activities. And yet, if you stopped
doing them, you would feel the effects almost immediately.
In the workplace, there are other types of basic “hygiene” needs
that must be met. These needs include salary, work conditions,
company policy and administration, supervision, working
relationships, status and security, and safety. On the other
hand, motivation factors include challenging work, recognition
for one’s achievements, responsibility, the opportunity to do
something meaningful, involvement in decision making, and a
sense of importance to the organization.
As a leader, it’s easy to have blind spots toward the status of
these basic hygiene requirements inside your organization.
But when corporate hygiene is low, people feel it. To
determine whether there is healthy organizational hygiene,
expect to consistently know answers to the following:
This abbreviated list suggests the type of questions leaders
need to assess in determining whether the organization is
meeting employees’ basic hygiene needs. When the root
causes of the problems that lead to chronic stress and
burnout are identified, then (and only then) can well-being
- Is anyone on the team feeling unsafe at work—either
physically or psychologically?
- Are people paid fairly across all groups, particularly those
where pay gaps exist?
- Does everyone on the team know what they are supposed
to be doing right now?
- Do they know how to do their jobs?
- How many hours did staff actually work this week (not just
what was personally witnessed)?
- What other external pressures are they dealing with, such
as a new baby or a sick family member?
- Are they battling racism or discrimination?
Leading during a pandemic means there are external forces
at play that impact well-being at work, and it poses another
unique challenge for leaders this year. But there are still
myriad ways to support employees in the workplace despite
where the stressors are occurring.
MAKE IT SAFE FOR HARD CONVERSATIONS
Many people have faced grief in their lifetime, but in the last
year, the collective grief was unparalleled. Not since the
World Wars and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic has the world
gone through so much loss at one moment in time.
In the workplace, grief can cause people to be more
disorganized, withdrawn, or anxious. It can also increase
“brain fog,” a symptom of chronic stress that can make
people feel distracted, fatigued, demotivated, and unclear
and increase errors in their work.
Unfortunately, managers can miscalculate these behaviors
as performance problems. Ensuring that doesn’t happen
requires a better analysis of whether the late arrivals or
less than perfect work is atypical. That means digging
deeper. Is there something else? Could there be some
external stressor that is causing these behaviors? In a
global pandemic and beyond, there may be a few potential
scenarios to point to. In other words, if it seems obvious, it is.
With the addition of chronic stress and fear of the virus and
months of social isolation, mental health is bound to be
affected. And yet, my research, published in Harvard Business
Review, found that nearly half of respondents don’t believe they
can openly talk about mental health at work. As a result, 65%
of those people experienced burnout “often or always.”
Tactics to support more open conversations around mental
health can include:
Increased check-ins that discuss non-work-related
conversations. Ask the following questions:
- On a scale of 0-100, how would you rate your stress level?
- What, if any, were some of the barriers you faced this week
in reaching your goals?
- What can I do to make next week easier?
- You say you’re fine, are you sure? I want to be able to
support you if you need it.
Engagement of managers in mental health training. They
should know what resources are available to their staff
though human resources, employee assistance programs,
and other tools that are offered to support mental health.
The end of strict grief policies. It’s foolish to suggest that
48 hours is enough to deal with the death of a loved one and
then functionally return to work. Rather, offer employees
the space they need to grieve so they can return to work
effectively. These actions will increase trust, loyalty,
engagement, and retention.
Our global survey of 1,500 respondents across 46 countries
also found that only 21% rated their well-being as good
during the pandemic and a mere 2% rated their well-being
This suggests that a large part of the workforce is suffering.
And yet, this is not just a pandemic problem. Stigma around
discussing mental health at work is a long-standing issue.
Leaders need to make safe spaces now, both virtually and in
person, to discuss mental health in a crisis and beyond. To
nurture a culture of psychological safety, leaders must learn
how to be optimal listeners.
LISTEN AND TAKE ACTION
Active listening is a key attribute of empathy. It means having
the ability to focus completely on a speaker, understand
the message, comprehend the information, and respond
Good listening is key in a pandemic and in the recovery
phase. Our research found that when describing poor
communication from leadership, respondents felt increased
“uncertainty, fear and anxiety.” This would ultimately put
them at greater risk of burnout according to further analysis.
The Workforce Institute at Kronos Inc. found that “only a
fraction of employees (20%) felt their organization met their
needs during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Chris Mullen, PhD, executive director of The Workforce
Institute at UKG, stresses that during the pandemic, “instead
of looking for trendy perks, companies needed to get back
to the foundational needs every employee requires: physical
safety, psychological security, job stability, and flexibility.”
The same survey found that nearly a third (32%) of
respondents yearned for more communication from
leadership during the pandemic—both sooner and more
transparently—which is a primary regret for more than a
third (35%) of C-level leaders.
Here are suggestions for better communication during a
- Communicate the plan often—especially as it changes.
- Acknowledge and validate uncertainties and share how the
organization is protecting physical and psychological safety.
- Spend more time answering questions than sharing
- Ensure employees can immediately access mental health
support and information related to the crisis.
Old rules around reduced hours/flexible hours, or even paid
time off, should be thrown out the window. Remember, this is
not business as usual. Add more training. Implement more
peer-to-peer outreach programs, mental health 101, and
manager training for how to deal with conversations related
to grief and trauma. Increase check-ins.
When there is empathy, uncertainty is mitigated. With their
actions, leaders are saying, “I’ve heard your messages, I am
working hard to understand your needs, and I am doing my
best to respond thoughtfully.”
PRIORITIZE PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY AND
PHYSICAL SAFETY EQUALLY
When buildings are on fire, people are evacuated. This
begs the question, why force people into a space that for
them feels unsafe? As the recovery mode begins, it will be
important to create hybrid solutions for employees—options
that make everyone feel safe.
Workplace experts have long been advocating for more
flexible options. When the pandemic struck, it was finally
possible to demonstrate that working from home can be
equally productive as being in the office. And yet, what if in
the past year, the pendulum swung too far to the other side?
In reality, aren’t “work from home forever/only” policies still
inflexible? Some people need to go to a physical workspace
because they are fueled by those in-person connections. Many
respondents to the survey shared how lonely and isolating it’s
been to only communicate with their team virtually. To right the
pendulum, companies will need to provide employees access
to both a remote and an in-person work option.
Fran Katsoudas, executive VP and chief people, policy, and
purpose officer at Cisco, agrees that empathy is at the root of
strong leadership and healthy cultures.
“We’re a big believer that empathy is a superpower,”
Katsoudas shares in an April 2021 interview after a long
and stressful year leading through the pandemic. “From a
workplace perspective, we’re going to work so hard to help
our leaders and teams get proximate to people that are
different from themselves and walk alongside them and
understand them. We believe that if we do this, we’ll be so
much better as a company.”
Some ways Cisco led with empathy first during the
- Increasing transparency in communication
- Augmenting employee check-ins at all leadership levels
- Having more open conversations about challenging topics
such as mental health, social justice, and COVID health and
- Enhancing existing flexible work options
- Providing more access to health experts
- Putting a bigger focus on campaigns that promote wellbeing,
such as “Day for Me,” a day off in May given to all
employees and contractors to focus on employee mental
health and well-being, and #safetalk. Already well in
place before the pandemic, #safetalk offers mental health
resources. Another facet of the program, #safespace,
connects like-minded employees to network and support
one another. Topics include mental health, substance
abuse, neurodiverse employees, gender transitioning
employees, and parents who have lost children.
With a keen awareness that these are unique times that require
unique solutions, the leadership team at Cisco acknowledge
there is more work to be done. In response, they continue to
analyze novel approaches to support the mental and physical
health of a workforce under chronic stress from a pandemic.
TRANSITIONING BACK TO NORMAL
In 2020, the workforce was expeditious in adopting safety
measures against COVID-19. As the recovery phase begins,
the same measures to protect psychological safety must be
These are important considerations. During a crisis and the
subsequent recovery mode, there is going to be a surplus of
change. And if leaders lack empathy and emotional flexibility,
it will be easy to fall back on old practices that don’t solve
new problems. This holds back organizations and teams
In times of crises and recovery, being highly skilled in
cognitive empathy is like always having the best umbrella
in the storm. That means the workforce is built on trust,
healthy and respectful relationships abound, and people
feel psychologically safe during times of uncertainty. There
is space for grief and mourning and healing. Managers are
open and prepared for conversations about mental health,
and they actively listen to create more positive actions.
What empathetic leadership isn’t? Soft.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jennifer Moss is an award-winning journalist, author, and international
public speaker. She is a nationally syndicated radio columnist, reporting
on topics related to happiness and workplace well-being. She is also a
freelance writer whose articles have appeared in HuffPost, Forbes, the
Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Fortune, and Harvard
Business Review. Her forthcoming book is The Burnout Epidemic: The
Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It.