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Leadership in focus: How not to fail your people when they need you the most

The last few months have seen an interesting array of what I would describe as fairly fundamental leadership blunders. There are two obvious examples which stand out. The first was when Bill Michael, the now former UK Chair of KPMG, told a virtual town-hall with more than 500 members of staff over Zoom in February to ‘stop moaning’, and that no one could play ‘the role of victim’ unless they were [physically] sick. The second and most recent example was from Goldman Sachs’ CEO David Solomon who made the following statement in an address to more than 34,000 employees after junior analysts had raised significant concerns about the relentless and unsustainable number of hours they were being asked to put in:

"Just remember: if we all go an extra mile for our client, even when we feel that we're reaching our limit, it can really make a difference in our performance,"

In both instances, their comments showcased how fundamentally out of touch they were with the struggles that their people were experiencing (and what constitutes optimum performance – but that’s one for another time). Glossing over someone else’s struggles and essentially asking them to step up, is an obvious example of failed leadership and toxic positivity. David and Bill’s comments personify the concept of toxic positivity - they readily glossed over people’s struggles and asked them to put on a brave face and dig a little deeper. Their comments sought to delegitimise people’s feelings of anxiety, exhaustion and hardship, which would have only served to amplify their suffering further.

In previous posts I have discussed research showcasing how resilience across an organisation, including people’s ability to buffer stress and burnout, increases significantly when people feel cared for. For people to feel cared for, they need to feel seen, heard and valued by leadership. When David Solomon initially addressed the concerns of the junior analysts by saying “we want a workplace where people can share concerns freely... If there are any issues, do not hesitate to reach out to ask for help”, he demonstrated compassionate and caring leadership. Unfortunately, his words were readily undermined shortly afterwards when he encouraged everyone to ‘go the extra mile… even when we feel we’re reaching our limit’.

Had David Solomon (or Bill Michael for that matter) really listened to what people were saying, and if he truly cared about the mental health and the lives of the 34,000 members of staff within his care, he would have ideally spent more time trying to understand the issues people are facing and genuinely engaged with them to find an effective solution. I am hearing of far too many instances where leaders are paying lip service to people on the brink of burnout. On the one hand they pretend to listen, but swiftly demonstrate their complete lack of understanding or compassion by requiring people to take on even more work without adequate support or respite. When a leader says “yes, but” they are signalling that your feelings aren’t valid, which inadvertently amplifies your struggle by causing you to feel alone, deficient and unsupported – a toxic combination.

Across the world, people are reporting higher levels of exhaustion than ever before. No real surprise given we are in a near perfect storm for mental ill-health during Covid-19. According to research published in January 2021, the working day has now increased by an average of two hours compared to pre-pandemic levels. In addition, people are still struggling to unblur the lines between work and personal time, increasing their risk of burnout further. A recent report by Microsoft highlighted statistics from January 2021 which showcased that leaders are faring significantly better than their junior colleagues. Whist 61% of leaders were thriving when surveyed in January 2021, the exact opposite was true amongst junior employees where between 60-67% were merely surviving or actively struggling. This disconnect potentially makes it more difficult for leaders to truly grasp the challenges that others are grappling with.

A significant number of people (although thankfully not all) are struggling at the moment. That may well be an inconvenient truth for leaders at a time of continued uncertainty. However, if you are in a leadership position and you genuinely care about doing the right thing by the people you are privileged enough to lead, now is the time they need you the most. They need you to listen, no matter how uncomfortable it might be for you to hear. They don’t want you to gloss over their struggles and pretend it’s not a big deal. They don’t want you to hear you say “I know how you feel, but…” - they need your empathy not your sympathy. Many of them are mentally exhausted, many continue to experience high levels of anxiety about so many different things, and too many are on the brink of burnout.

If you wish your people to emerge from their struggles stronger, then they desperately need to know that you care and that requires them to feel genuinely seen and heard by you. For that to happen effectively, you need to actively listen to them. Don’t make the same mistakes that David Solomon and Bill Michael made. They chose to avoid experiencing discomfort by glossing over the reality of the struggles that many of their people are experiencing. They chose what was easy over what was right. Confronting and sitting with other people’s suffering takes courage, but it also makes us stronger as a leader and as a human being. It also makes our organisations more resilient and, dare I say it, more human.


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