December 24, 2020

4 Ways That Business Leaders Should Face the Pandemic's Ignored Truth

In a December 10 interview on Boston's NBC10, I observed that TV and newspaper reporting is looking at Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths, hunger lines, evictions, and unemployment as stale statistics. While this isn't universally true -- some stories of individuals have received press attention, according to the Washington Post -- the overall effect is in stark contrast to how we dealt with 9/11, after which the media honored and mourned virtually every one of its victims.

Although I can only guess at the reasons for this, I firmly believe that business leaders must take action to change the narrative about the pandemic. By viewing the pandemic in abstract terms, it becomes easier to create emotional distance between those who are suffering from the physical symptoms of the disease and everyone else.

That emotional distance sustains dangerous ideas. These include the notion that the pandemic will magically disappear, that wearing masks and social distancing impinge on our liberty, that the pandemic should be ended by letting so many people be infected that society develops "herd immunity," and that Covid-19 vaccines should be avoided.

Your business should narrow the emotional distance between your employees, customers, and other stakeholders and the pandemic. Here are four ways to do that.

1. Listen to employees talk about how Covid-19 has caused them pain.

Business leaders must help their employees to manage their anxiety and grief. The first step in that process is acknowledging that it exists and -- with permission from those suffering -- share the individual stories with the rest of the company.

While few business leaders are prepared for such conversations, they must overcome their discomfort. The reason is simple: If your people feel as though they have done something wrong by suffering from the pandemic, their grief and anxiety could have a nearly paralyzing effect on their ability to function.

If you acknowledge their pain and share it with others in your company, you will make their suffering socially acceptable and encourage people to help one another to get through their pain.

This will release those who are suffering most acutely from bearing the burden alone, it will help to destigmatize the disease, and it will make everyone in your company more willing to accept measures you advocate to help limit the spread of Covid-19 among your employees, customers, and partners.

2. Gather stories of customers who've been harmed by the pandemic.

You should also ask your customers to discuss how the pandemic has harmed them and what they are doing to limit its damage and process their pain. These conversations will show you care about their well-being.

Moreover, those conversations will help you to identify urgent new needs that your company may be able to address by offering new products or modifying the ones you already provide. 

3. Consider the stories in setting strategies to protect employees and help customers.

To lead effectively through the pandemic, you must create compelling reasons for your employees to stay healthy and motivated and develop new strategies to attract new customers and encourage your current customers to continue buying.  

By listening to employee and customer stories of how the pandemic has affected them, you will internalize their emotions, their thinking, and how they are changing their conduct. As a result, you will be better able to propose and get feedback on strategies to protect your employees and help your customers adapt to the changes caused by the pandemic.

4. Share these stories when talking with employees and customers.

People need to feel that their leaders share their emotions. As a business leader, you are responsible for building that emotional bridge with your employees and customers. 

Before you discuss the new strategies you've developed to help your employees and customers, build that bridge by telling stories of the pain they've suffered from the pandemic.

Once they know you care, they'll care what you know.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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