This article first appeared in Management Issues on May 13, 2020.
One of the biggest lessons from the coronavirus pandemic has been that incredible feats can be accomplished when leaders share a sense of purpose and provide opportunities to participate in solving real business challenges.
When done right, sharing a common purpose can create a sense of belonging and help to encourage your employees to adopt a sense of ownership for your company’s future. This can make the difference between an engaged and productive workforce that helps you design the way forward and one that has lost focus and can no longer deliver what’s required for your business to survive.
Leaders usually achieve this by framing what that future looks like on a visceral level to help employees understand the desired end state. However, the dynamic situation we’re living in makes having a concrete vision of the future impossible – just when employees need clarity more than ever on what to prioritize after they’ve taken care of their daily needs and those of their family.
So how do you help people maintain a level of focus and engagement while they feel confused and unsure about the future? Develop a call-to-arms and then find ways to help your people feel useful instead of helpless.
History is full of examples of people responding to calls in times of hardship and uniting around a purpose to achieve results. In the United Kingdom, the pandemic call-to-arms is “Stay at home - Protect the NHS - Save Lives.” While you would think that saving lives would be a compelling reason to stay home on its own, we would argue that the reason it has been seemingly successful thus far is because of its plea to protect the beloved national institution of the National Health Service. This is a rallying cry that taps into fierce national pride, and ties the desired behavior to a tangible outcome that people can plainly understand.
Doing the work now to ‘brand’ a present state for your employees will give them a true north. This is a crucible moment. What do you want to be known for?
A good call-to-arms is authentic to who you are as an organization and invites all employees to contribute. It is punchy, pithy, memorable, and drives action. Keep it simple, and at the highest level, think about your employees. What matters to them, and how can they help?
To develop a call-to-arms, gather as leaders to determine what your immediate organizational purpose is in this time of crisis. What business results do you have to deliver in order to survive? What role, if any, can your organization play in helping society more broadly? How do you want to be seen when this is all over? Consider the following three E’s:
Emotion: An effective call-to-arms drives an emotional connection. It cuts through the relentless noise of pandemic messaging, provides clarity, and captures hearts and minds. It connects peoples’ day-to-day actions to the greater good and helps them feel a part of something bigger than themselves.
Expectations: Be explicit about desired behaviors and provide direction on how everyone can contribute. What are the simple actions that each employee can take to be a part of the company’s survival right now? What behaviors will make the difference between success and failure while the crisis continues?
Explanation: Explain ‘the why’ behind decisions so that people feel confident in the direction of travel. Treat your employees like adults and transparently explain challenges
and caveats. Empower them by giving them information that will help them understand why things are happening. And remember, a call-to-arms must remain current. It will need to evolve to stay in step with the dynamic situation of the crisis.
Participation gives employees a voice and drives action
A call-to-arms inspires belief and galvanizes your people around purpose, but participation is what translates purpose into action. People own what they create.
Inviting employees to participate in worthwhile initiatives will help them feel part of something bigger than themselves and gives them an important role to play. This will help them overcome any sense of helplessness they feel right now.
In these times, leaders will have to lean more heavily on technology to deliver this message to the virtual world, but the same principles apply: design the right process to drive effective collaboration. Invite the right mix of people, using the right place, virtually or physically, to maximize creativity. Establish design principles to guide the work and prepare in partnership for every aspect of the engagement.
Using virtual co-creation techniques, you can unlock the expertise, passion, and talent within your teams to identify creative and effective solutions to the challenges you currently face.
These can range from three-hour, focused, remote working sessions, to multi-day virtual design events, and even multi-week mass online engagements, crowdsourcing from hundreds of people. Even a basic poll gives your people a voice.
And they don’t have to be focused on coronavirus crisis-related issues alone. We are working with clients and using these techniques to tackle some of their biggest initiatives, whether or not they are related to the coronavirus pandemic. Virtual design events can be used to achieve almost any objective, such as co-creating a target operating model, testing and validating future industry scenarios, and crowdsourcing new business plans for additional revenue streams. Whatever initiative you involve your people in, the very fact of inviting them will give them a feeling of connection to purpose and ownership for the outcome.
Then, it is vital that you act on the output from your people. Communicate what you are doing with their input, and pass on progress as it is made. Keep the conversation alive by demonstrating that you value their contribution and are implementing what was decided as a collective, or you will lose trust and damage to your credibility.
A Meaningful Contribution
Engaging your people through purpose and participation can help your organization survive and possibly even thrive during this unprecedented time. Not everyone can work on the frontline of the crisis and care for victims of this pandemic, but everyone can feel part of something meaningful.
By issuing employees with a clear call-to-arms and inviting them to contribute to the organization’s survival and success, you are not only helping the company navigate choppy waters, but you are also giving your people a sense of belonging and a clear place in its future. They will be ready to lead your organization out of the crisis and help to reimagine the future.