A global pandemic, racial riots, the Great Resignation, the spread of gun violence, and now inflation and a recession. We have been caught in a cycle of uncertainty and upheaval for over two years now (although some of these issues have been around much longer).
During times of uncertainty, it's crucial for business leaders to measure how well their culture helps employees feel safe, seen, and supported.
This is what Edward Sullivan and John Baird, two of the world's top executive coaches, document in their recently published book Leading With Heart.
"The key difference between companies thriving during crises and those languishing is how willing leaders are to make emotionally connected conversations a culture cornerstone," says Edward Sullivan, CEO of Velocity, the firm that coaches companies like Apple, DoorDash, Geico, and more.
Sullivan and I agree with the premise that heart-led cultures are no longer "soft" but rather essential for the workplace: Companies get more results. They are also more creative and experience much higher employee retention because people stay loyal. Since culture is the outcome of hundreds of conversational and behavioral habits, your best chance at shaping culture is to influence those habits through principles and values.
To expand on this growing leadership practice, I connected with Sullivan, who shared with me five guiding principles for building a "leading with heart" culture during tough times:
1. Be inclusive and account for diverse employee needs.
Inclusive companies account for diverse needs and create a rich environment that allows creative people and their ideas to flourish. This stands in stark contrast to the antiquated idea of creating uniformity in the workplace that many companies still aspire to. But first, you must learn what those needs are.
Sullivan encourages his clients to initiate conversations about what employees need to feel creative and resilient, not just what the company needs them to do.
Questions like, "What do you need to be most creative?" and "What is getting in the way of meeting your needs?" can seed productive conversations.
2. Acknowledge people's fears.
Many believe showing fear is a sign of weakness, so they spend immense energy trying to hide it. But fear is like steam. Contained for too long, it will blow a lid off. It makes sense, then, that companies that don't regularly discuss fears experience toxic and unhealthy behaviors.
Sullivan says the most toxic workplace behavior is directly related to unexpressed and unresolved fears. Healthy conversations about fear often begin with the leader showing vulnerability and courage that create an opening for others to share their fears.
A conversation might start with the leader saying, "The thing that keeps me up at night is ______________." The leader can ask employees, "What are you afraid of?"
3. Leverage people's core desires without letting them get derailed.
Everyone wants to be liked, to win, to learn, and to feel important. But taken to extremes, desires can be derailing and lead to unproductive or even damaging behaviors.
Sullivan says leaders must be acutely aware of what people want while staying mindful of limitations. Any overexpressed desire can result in unintended consequences. The key is monitoring people's behavior and ensuring they're productive, not disruptive.
4. Help people express their gifts to avoid mediocrity.
We all have a natural ability born from an early experience that feels effortless to us but extraordinary to others. This is your "zone of genius."
According to Sullivan, companies achieving outsize results have designed their cultures to help as many people as possible deploy their "zone of genius." Yet this remains elusive, as very few people are aware of their gifts, and if they are, they don't express them.
Gift conversations are essential in developing high-performing teams. These leaders ask, "What are your gifts?" and "What personal strengths aren't being utilized by this team?"
5. Prioritize values and purpose above everything, including profit.
According to Sullivan, a Leading With Heart fundamental is placing purpose and values above everything, including profit and internal politics. This challenges many leaders who often compromise values to improve short-term profits, only to regret it later.
The pursuit of short-term profit is a rather recent and--as Sullivan says--"misguided" phenomenon in American business. Instead, companies with immutable long-term values thrive for generations.
Leaders must continually articulate values and connect the work to an organization's overall purpose. To achieve this, leaders should ask themselves: "How good are you doing in connecting your team to the higher sense of purpose and values of the organization?"