Business leaders face a minefield in the workplace

19 March 2021 4 min. read

Expert business and leadership development consultancy, A Matter of Choice, is run by identical twins, Karen Powell and Lesley Heath. Both Karen and Lesley have spent their careers at the top of the HR and safety industry having both held senior management roles in organisations including Asda, Royal Mail and West Midlands Trains. 

Driven by the pandemic to reengineer their business in 2020, they put their extensive experience and wisdom to use, by offering business leaders direction and advice on how to navigate through the minefield of a fast-changing business and workplace environment. As well as providing guidance on how to deliver tough business messages, whilst engaging with the wider teams.

It is this exact topic, about how business leaders can deliver tough corporate messages, keeping in mind a duality of focus on both commerce and compassion, which Karen and Lesley go on to discuss. Karen says: “Industry leaders and bosses have had a ‘wake-up’ call regarding how they address their staff considering the rapid changes that have taken place in the last 12 months.

Business leaders face a minefield in the workplace

“The impact of the pandemic has meant that what was once a way for senior managers to talk to their teams, has suddenly taken a new direction and the consequences can be disastrous.”

A high profile example of this is the impact of the virtual meeting conducted by Bill Michael, CEO of worldwide accounting firm, KPMG. In an update video, setting the scene for the next few months, he told his staff that unless they were ill, they should stop moaning about their bonuses and recognise they were lucky to be working in a sector less affected by Covid-19. In previous times, this may have had less impact as people were in a different frame of mind, but the new focus on mental health and wellbeing means sentiments such as these can come over as unfeeling and out of step with the way the workforce identifies today. 

A tricky new world for leaders

Lesley says: “We are witnessing a tricky new world emerging where business leaders are having to walk a tightrope between balancing the focus on commerce without it being interpreted as at the expense of compassion. The pandemic has affected people’s lives, with many being exposed to situations out of their control, which in turn can jeopardise mental health.”

“Therefore we must communicate with business leaders the importance of compassionate engagement with employees, which in turn will encourage a more efficient and productive team. Clearly it is not in the interests of the on-going success of a company to reduce its focus on productivity otherwise the effect on employees should the business fail is even more disastrous. Nowadays it is about finding a path which does not dilute the commercial messaging but is delivered in a way that does not exclude evidence of real compassion.” 

Bill Michael found this to his cost and had left the business within days of the story breaking. Highlighting another minefield, the sheer speed that an ill-judged comment can reach a wide and critical audience via social media cannot be underestimated. Such that there is no period of grace to undo, unpick or remedy something which in hindsight could have been communicated better.

All of which means bosses are having to learn a whole new suite of business speak to be sure not to offend or damage culture within organisations. The fact is this is not coming easily to most and with such a steep learning curve where one false move can topple them over the edge, it is causing anxiety and an erring on the side of inaction which is not in the long-term interest of any business.

Karen and Lesley provide five tips for successful leadership in the current environment:

  • Despite the new world order, in business, tough decisions need to be taken and difficult messages must be communicated;
  • Leading by example has never been more important. The behaviour of the leaders sets the tone for the company, now more so than ever, a leaders behaviour and actions need to align with their words;
  • Leading with compassion and empathising with employees by acknowledging the seismic disruption and changes they are encountering through working from home, isolation from family and friends, home schooling, etc.;
  • Self aware leaders understand the impact they have on others. The pendulum has swung so far from the sentiments summed up in Wolf of Wall Street in 2013 when Leonardo de Caprio’s character told his staff: “Leave your emotions at the door”. Especially as these days, that door is likely to be one’s own front door;
  • It is about accepting that being commercially astute and compassionate are not mutually exclusive.