As we’ve all been in shock at the last week of events (nearly every event, meeting, and conference is now canceled), I’m trying to make some sense of this.
The big message I think we’re learning is that whatever happens, the right response is People First, Business Second.
I’m not an alarmist, but we have to be honest. The NY Times just reported that between 160 million and 214 million people are likely to be infected (CDC confidential study) and as many as 200,000 to 1.7 million people could die. For those of you who have had pneumonia before (I’ve had it and it is really impossible to kick), you probably feel like I do: I’m pretty nervous.
For those of you who are my age (60s), we are seriously worried about this crisis. Some of us may be highly susceptible to the illness, and we want to feel safe above all.
Yes, a ton of vendors have pounced on this problem and are now promoting online learning systems, video conferencing systems, and all different types of digital tools. That’s not the point.
The real point is that people are scared, and as a result, we have to create a sense of trust, shared responsibility, and safety.
The US Federal Government has not been doing this well. Not only is it difficult to get clear information, but the #1 goal appears to be focused on the economy. It’s clear from the stock market that last night’s discussion didn’t go well. In fact, if you look at the S&P 500 (chart below) not only have we lost more than two years of stock market growth, we may even wipe out the entire stock market growth in the current presidency.
And remember that the stock market is not a barometer of the economy: it’s a future-looking view of where investors think things are going. So the outlook has plummeted at near-record rates.
What did we learn from that episode? For me as a business person, professional, and analyst, the message here is clear. What we need is a focus on people, not business.
In many ways, this feels like 9/11, but taking place in slow motion.
Then, as in now, if we focus on people, the economy will take care of itself over time. People are worried, so they aren’t traveling, eating out, or even going to work.
And if you’re not concerned, think about a hurricane warning. When the Governor warns of a hurricane and forces people to evacuate, it’s a huge inconvenience. But isn’t that ok anyway? At least we were prepared – and if the hurricane misses us we just feel lucky.
Remember that was the way the country felt about AIDS, until Rock Hudson was diagnosed. We just learned that Tom Hanks is infected, so this feels real to everyone.
Your Role In Business: Create A Sense of Trust
Just as we found in 9/11, we need to build a sense of safety, trust, and collective thinking in our people.
I recently read the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer and their finding was very clear. Trust is based on three things: competence (doing things well), ethics (living by an ethical value system), and voice (giving people a chance to speak).
As Edelman points out, today the trust matrix is challenged. The most trusted institution in our lives is our companies, and even here our ethics are challenged.
Remember, as I discussed in a recent article, the people in your company are the ones who will pull you out of a financial slowdown.The Coronavirus then represents an opportunity. If you focus on your people in a competent and ethical way, and you listen to their needs, you can drive up trust, teamwork, and resilience.
This means making decisions (work at home, social distancing, paid time off, financial assistance for testing, education on the virus) that help individual people feel safe, protected and heard.
By the way, Amy Edmondson from Harvard has proven that companies that promote safety, ethics, and voice drive tremendous business results. Her book The Fearless Organization points out how creating a true and genuine sense of safety drives results.
What About The Slowdown? The Pressure To Lay People Off.
Clearly, there is going to be an economic slowdown, and this will result in layoffs and reduced pay. And the pressure to lay people off is growing (last week 211,000 people filed for unemployment and companies like United Airlines, Wal-Mart, Southwest, and others are thinking).
Again I ask you to think about people first.
Research shows that when these periods occur, companies that go through deep layoffs always underperform in the future. (Many go out of business.)
Why? There are many things that work against you: first, you lose valued skills; second, you lose customer relationships; but worst of all, the people who remain go through “survivor syndrome,” asking themselves “am I going to be next?”
“These are the kinds of times that define the character of a company,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said in an interview. “People want to work for an employer that cares about the bottom line and the well-being of its employees.”
I’m hoping the Coronavirus won’t be as bad as we think, but right now people are uncertain and afraid.
So as I mentioned last week, let’s slow down, accept the business interruption that’s going to take place, and take care of the people. In today’s world the CEO has to be the “Chief Empathy Officer” first.
If we do this the recovery will be faster, and our companies, lives, and entire society will be better off.
More to come on this topic.
PS: If you want to really understand how to drive Values and Voice in your company, look at our just-launched program in the Josh Bersin Academy: Voice, Values and HR. It will show you how to help employees speak up when they don’t feel comfortable or safe at work.