Don’t be a fake: the pandemic has found out low-integrity leadership

Written by Ian Muir CMgr CCMI Wednesday 24 February 2021
Wage threats, no-notice redundancies, inadequate health protection. Sadly the pandemic has led to some dire examples of leadership. But, says one CMI Companion, this won’t be tolerated for long
Cartoon person stopping dominos falling

There’s a story about a new graduate being given the book of business wisdom. It’s a big, thick book. When opened, the hundreds of pages are blank – except for the first. It contains just four words: “Do the right thing.”

If surrounded by panic, it can be easy to lose sight of what’s right. It’s therefore helpful to act on Gallup research that asked followers what they expected from their leaders. More than 10,000 workplace interviews yielded hundreds of thousands of responses. These distilled down to just four things:

Tell me the truth
Show me you care
Keep me safe
Give me hope

Let’s run through them in turn.

People want to be treated as adults. They aren’t fooled by spin or leaders being economical with the truth.

Showing that one cares is about basic humanity, treating people as individuals and recognising that context is everything. It includes respect, civility, empathy, active listening and rapport. Yet it’s not about “being nice” to people. Showing you care also includes upholding standards, such as not being complacent about poor work.

Safety and stability is much more than preventing accidents. It includes political safety from being stabbed in the back.

Finally, giving hope is about giving people a reason to want to come back to work tomorrow. It’s about purpose, vision and the “why” of the organisation.

Once leaders have established a sense of trust, compassion, stability and hope, I think they should act on the following question: “What stories will be told about your organisation and how proud will you be?” The world is watching how decisions are made, and workforces have long memories.

There’s an airline I know at which crew who’d been made redundant had to return company property. If you work for an airline, your identity has a deep connection to your uniform. Sadly, crew weren’t thanked in person, by management at a proper handover. No, instead they had to drive to an unmanned, anonymous industrial estate where they had to tip their uniform into a steel bin and drive away. Years of service… literally in the bin.

Here, with credit to Ethical Systems, are some behaviours to help leadership shine:

Recognise individual circumstances. Recognising individual circumstances means understanding context. Trauma heightens people’s sensitivity to actions. The balance between physical, mental and economic wellbeing means different things to different people. Of course, tough decisions are tough because there may be no good answers. When choosing the least-worst outcome, you can’t please people. But explaining why the decision is right for the organisation overall but wrong for the people adversely affected, demonstrates transparency and  understanding.

React with empathy, even when things seem out of control. Reacting with empathy, even when others might be in “headless-chicken” mode at least shows that leaders care. Let’s beware fake empathy and focus on active listening, standing in the other person’s shoes and building both trust and rapport. I think respect is earned when leaders are believed to be acting in the best interests of the team.

Maintain transparency. Transparency speaks to the notion of: “tell me the truth.” It includes providing context, the facts and, above all, explaining how and why decisions are made. I think this shows who the really good leaders are. They don’t shy away from difficult conversations. They back up their decisions with evidence. They don’t shirk responsibility by implying, “Sorry but it’s not my decision.”

Don’t take advantage of a tough situation to push a different agenda. Not taking advantage of the situation means there should not be low-integrity behaviour to drive alternative agendas under the cover of Coronavirus. Denying business interruption insurance and paying below minimum wage are examples of low-integrity behaviour. Similarly, if management has consistently failed to evolve the operating model and to modernise working practices, shame on them for forcing a “fire and re-hire” ultimatum when the going got tough.

Step up to the Covid-19 leadership challenge
Leadership is particularly challenged in the pandemic. There are many tensions and dilemmas. The most immediate is between economic viability and being seen as a decent employer. Furlough hasn’t been a holiday. It’s led to anxiety, loss of purpose and social isolation. Other tensions exist between individual and community considerations, between short and long-term priorities and between justice and mercy. Many managers have two teams: those working twice as hard as before and those on furlough. There’s a growing issue around “re-boarding” and how best to bring people back into the workplace.

Tough decisions need to be made openly, with honesty and implemented with humanity. This is where values-driven organisations have a stronger sense of doing the right thing. That’s not to say they are soft and cuddly. A well-known media company has a seven-word expenses policy: “Act in the best interests of [company].” That’s not a fraudster’s charter. It’s all about holding managers to account for the approval decisions they make. It’s about trusting people and checking the right thing has been done.

Digitisation, automation, virtualisation and self-service are accelerating organisational restructuring. Economic realities are straining organisations’ very existence. Leadership is being judged on the quality of decisions made, but also on justice and fairness. In the end, it comes down to doing the right thing.

Checklist 028 in ManagementDirect (free and exclusive to CMI members) offers a 12-point guide to developing and implementing a code of ethics.

Ian Muir CCMI advises organisations on executive assessment, board evaluation and top team facilitation. He is the director of board advisory firm Keeldeep Associates.

Don’t miss out - get notified of new content

Sign-up to become a Friend of CMI to recieve our free newsletter for a regular round-up of our latest insight and guidance.

CMI members always see more. For the widest selection of content, including CPD tools and multimedia resources, check out how to get involved with CMI membership.