The promising leadership shifts ignited by a global crisis

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Kiddy & Partners

Global crises have, through history, been a catalyst for change in the nature of work. Many of these shifts had positive and lasting impacts – think of how women’s central roles in the war effort in many countries during WWII enabled (some) women to enter the workforce permanently afterwards [1]. 

Likewise, today’s coronavirus crisis is having a profound impact on work. Some of the shifts currently made in many organisations are welcome ones, but it’s uncertain how long these changes will last after the pandemic is halted. Whilst there are many predictions about how COVID-19 will fundamentally change work [2,3], we know that behaviours are shaped by context and when that context shifts, often so do our actions. So how can we hang onto these beneficial changes and help leaders not to revert ‘back to normal’ once the crisis is over?

We’re hearing a number of human-centred shifts in leadership behaviours being made in response to the pandemic. These changes towards the positive force for good that leaders can deliver has many advantages for individuals, teams and communities. 


What are we hearing?

The importance of considering mental health as well as physical health in employee wellbeing has been increasing in recent years. During the current pandemic, we’re hearing of companies who are offering more support by way of proactive self-care strategies, such as virtual exercise classes and ‘Time to Talk’ drop in sessions. Alongside this, some of our clients are increasing access to coaching support and wellbeing resources, acknowledging that it’s quite understandable for people to be struggling right now. 

Why does it matter?

There is a wealth of research that connects the psychological wellbeing of employees with increased productivity and other positive work-related outcomes [4]. Mental ill health in the UK costs business £1,300 annually per employee whose mental health needs are unsupported [5]. Moreover, it is estimated that for every £1 businesses spend on mental health support, employers gain a £5 ROI in decreased absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover [6].

How do we keep it?

Many organisations risk losing the focus on wellbeing in the rush towards normality. Sustain your organisation’s commitment towards employee welfare by:

  • Creating similar expectations to take an actual lunch break – with fresh air if possible and food eaten away from a desk – by encouraging social non-work-related past-times and places for people to take a break. Reward and recognise those that do, to promote the positive shift in office behaviours.
  • Providing tools and techniques to manage stress and improve self-care through your learning and development resources and upskilling your managers to help support their direct reports too. The charity Mind have a number of helpful suggestions.
  • Encouraging open conversation and knowledgeable people to support others by building a team of Mental Health First Aiders.


What are we hearing?

Leading a remote workforce can be challenging, nonetheless, it is also creating the opportunity to strengthen leaders’ trust of their teams and inspire people differently. For example, one of our clients shared with us recently they have observed a decrease in command-and-control behaviours in leaders in their organisation and a move to more empowering leadership. Similarly, a Director we recently spoke to described his recent company-wide townhall from the CEO and CFO as the most engaging he’d ever seen, due to the more human broadcast from these leaders.  

Why does it matter?

Organisations with strong levels of trust have been found to be better able to respond to complexity and change [7]. Furthermore, increased charismatic messaging in leaders’ communications during times of crisis has been found to elicit strong motivating emotions in followers, leading to enhanced trust [8,9].

How do we keep it?

Once the pandemic is over and work begins to resemble something more familiar, leaders may be tempted to revert back to previous uninspiring behaviours and messaging. Encourage the retention of team engagement by:

  • Asking your people what they value from your leaders at the present time and use this feedback to inform your new communications strategies and informal messaging. For instance, using humour appropriately, allowing a glimpse into the ‘human’ side of leaders, and content focusing on people and not just numbers/data.
  • Giving praise and showing appreciation for extra efforts and success stories in human-centred team leadership.
  • Removing barriers to leaders empowering their teams. For instance, these obstacles could exist in how leaders are measured, or the kind of detail they’re expected to know and control, or via the exclusion of perhaps more junior subject matter experts in key business meetings. 


What are we hearing?

CSR initiatives have long been included as part of an organisation’s mission, however, few businesses integrate such social and community service as a core part of their strategy. We’re hearing examples of businesses strengthening their support of their smaller customers who rely on them, rather than only attending to the biggest revenue-generators who have more robustness to weather the 2020 storm. Equally, many companies are pivoting to support charities through donations, financial or otherwise, or by giving employees more time in the working week to spend serving local communities.

Why does it matter?

Beyond the ‘well it’s the right thing to do’ argument, how can you convince even the most sceptical of stakeholders that prioritising social and community issues is commercially advantageous? Those companies that are more socially responsible are increasingly creating a competitive advantage against those who are not: research indicates 2/3rds of consumers’ purchasing impressions are influenced by the companies’ social responsibility, ethics and sustainability credentials [10]. Equally important to consider is the connection found between an organisation’s CSR strategies, employer branding and staff retention [11]. 

How do we keep it? 

  • Reviewing the days available to employees to spend supporting charitable or community-led initiatives.
  • Considering the whole of your supply chain: do their values and community focuses mirror your own?
  • Adopting a ‘Triple Bottom Line’ strategy: focusing your organisation on economic, environmental and social sustainability.

These shifts towards more human-centred leadership are encouraging, but risk being lost if businesses seek to return backwards rather than forwards to a new way of working. Fundamentally, behaviour change is difficult – a challenge well-known by anyone who’s not seen the expected shifts back in the business following a training or development programme. However, with deliberate and focused action, companies can take this as an opportunity to retain some of the positive leadership shifts that have developed from the crisis as we begin to re-emerge. 

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[1] Anitha, S. and Pearson, R. (2013) Striking Women. Lincoln: University of Lincoln. [Online] Available from:  
[2] Baker, P.; (2020); How will the world emerge from the coronavirus crisis; The Guardian;
[3] Javorcik, B.; (2020); Coronavirus will change the way the world does business for good; Financial Times;
[4] Robertson, I., Cooper, C., Sarkar, M., & Curran, T. (2015). Resilience training in the workplace from 2003 to 2014: A systematic review. Journal of occupational and organizational psychology
[5] Mental Health First Aid England; (2019);
[6] Hampson, E., & Jacob, A.; (2020); Mental health and employers:
Refreshing the case for investment; Deloitte
[7] Molina-Morales, F. X., Martínez-Fernández, M. T., & Torlo, V. J. (2011). The dark side of trust: The benefits, costs and optimal levels of trust for innovation performance. Long Range Planning
[8] Bligh, M., Kohles, J., & Meindl, J.; (2004); Charisma under crisis: Presidential leadership, rhetoric, and media responses before and after the September 11th terrorist attacks; The Leadership Quarterly
[9] Sy, T., Horton, C., & Riggio, R.; (2018); Charismatic leadership: Eliciting and channeling follower emotions. The Leadership Quarterly
[10] Igwe, P.A., Icha-Ituma, A., & Madichie, N.O. (2018). An Evaluation of CSR and Social Value Practices Among UK Commercial and Social Enterprises, Entrepreneurial Business and Economics Review
[11] Jain, S. (2013). Employer branding and its impact on CSR, motivation, and retention of employees using structural equation modelling. Delhi Business Review

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