Business leaders deal with uncertainties and disruptions all the time. They come with the job. Uncertainty does not lead inexorably to calamity. But:
  • The job changes and the stakes get higher in the face of disruptions to society at large—like the Ukraine war and the pandemic—which levy different and urgent challenges on business leaders.  
  • There’s pressure to meet the needs of all stakeholders—fast. In these situations, business leaders are sometimes called upon to make life-or-death decisions.  
  • And there’s pressure to present to the world the organization’s stance on the crisis, so leaders must make quick judgments that will affect the health and longevity of the organization.  
How did leaders deal with the crises and disruptions of recent years? We talked with BCG experts to understand the kinds of actions—and interactions—that can carry an organization and its people through crisis.
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Deborah Lovich, a BCG managing director and senior partner, talked to us about the intersection of leadership and the employee experience when it comes to mental health and well-being, particularly during times of crisis and uncertainty.

BCG: Events of the past few years have given people everywhere a lot to deal with, emotionally.  What do you think those experiences have revealed about the role and work of an organization leader?

Deborah Lovich: I’m interested in what leaders can do to support their people in all ways, and that includes their well-being and the well-being of their families. I think there’s both a personal and a professional aspect to that.

I've talked with colleagues and clients who lost family members in the Ukraine war and the pandemic. Such news is always shocking and so very tragic. I find myself thinking, What to do? What to say?

I realize that I can’t know what other people are going through, but I can listen and make sure people feel heard and honored and cared for. So, that’s one thing leaders should do: build relationships in which people feel comfortable sharing personal and painful experiences and emotions and know they will be supported and not judged for being preoccupied or distracted.

People want to talk about what they have experienced, so it’s important to be patient and to be okay with uncomfortable silences. Then, at the right time, to ask empathetic questions: How do you feel? What is going on with you? What were your family members like? It’s okay to have no agenda in a check-in conversation. And it is important to create an environment where people can talk about tragedy if that is what people need. And they often do—in the kinds of experiences I mentioned, I found that people often want to talk about their loved ones.

What’s the professional aspect?

That is what the business needs. Business needs all leaders to become what we call “generative.” Generative leaders work as a team to make their organizations better every day in every way. They are always asking themselves, How do we make every single person better off every time we interact with them? How do we make every product we develop one that will make the world better? How do we continue to improve the speed, agility, fulfillment, and fun of day-to-day operations?

I believe that generative leadership is the only way organizations can face today’s immense challenges: the rapid deterioration of our climate; the need to take care of, motivate, and reskill employees for the digital- and AI-driven future; the call to redefine work in a way that creates true equity and inclusion. . . the list goes on and on.

What particular skills do leaders need in order to help their people during crises?

The skills that leaders need are the same in any crisis. In fact, these skills are important even if there isn’t a crisis. Crisis situations just call them out and make the need for them more noticeable. No matter what, leaders need to be showing empathy, understanding, and caring. They need to be there for employees.

Empathy means they need to truly walk in the shoes of their front line. That means going to the work—walking the halls and experiencing what employees experience. For example, leaders at Lyft actually go out and drive the cars to truly understand the experience of their front line.

Leaders also need to foster openness and create safe spaces to talk. They can be vulnerable, listen, and show empathy.

No matter what, leaders need to be showing empathy, understanding, and caring. They need to be there for employees.
Deborah Lovich, Managing Director & Senior Partner, Boston

Ideally, they’ll also inspire their people with a clear sense of purpose and a vision that motivates and aligns them. Speaking of motivation, we know from behavioral science that people need to hear five positives for every negative. Leaders should keep that in mind when engaging with all of their teams.

How does this work in the context of remote or hybrid work?

Traditional tools like surveys and virtual town halls and pulse checks can surface issues and give leaders a chance to address them. Leaders can also simply communicate, to groups or individuals, via emails, phone calls, or Zoom meetings. The trick is to make communication truly a two-way street and a frequent occasion. Just because you think you are being transparent doesn’t mean your teams think so.

How do leaders become adept at looking out for the well-being of their people?

It does require a particular skill set. The good news is that through coaching, people can develop those skills. Leaders need to be open to coaching and to personally role model the growth mindset they want all their teams to have. That means finding a coach who has been in similar situations—former or current leaders who have these muscles—and have been trained to coach.

Leadership by Design: Navigate the complexities of today’s leadership and management environment.

Honestly, executive coaching is a fragmented and diverse field. It is rare to find a large enough cadre of coaches with the right work and life experiences to help an entire organization’s leadership team. Many coaches are former C-suite executives who have each spent over a year learning to coach. These coaches have real experience, from the trenches, and know that listening is as important as talking—probably more important. They can coach leaders to learn to sit with silence. To be ready to ask thoughtful, empathetic questions—or, if the situation calls for it, probing questions that can help a colleague work through complicated feelings.

It can seem that leaders never have enough time to do all that’s expected of them, but when colleagues and employees need your time, make time. There’s no better support than to be willing to take the time to listen.