Every crisis brings opportunity. The current pandemic, and the expected economic downturn that will follow, requires leaders and organizations to rethink the way they work. Those companies that operate in more humane ways and do the right thing for all stakeholders in these difficult times will outperform those that do not, short term and long term.
As I demonstrated through research with 58 global leaders in my latest book Humane Capital, there is a clear correlation between companies that do well and companies that do good. There are companies that promote goodwill internally and externally, but most of all they put people first, and work proactively with all their stakeholders to achieve their goals. Currently, too few companies have yet made the major management shift needed to join them—the good.
In this current crisis, companies of all types and sizes in all sectors are under unprecedented, often existential pressure. How they react now, and the genuine social responsibility they demonstrate will be remembered for a long time and will fundamentally affect how they are viewed by their stakeholders and society at large. This will consequently affect their future success and sustainability.
Based on the many years of my research, I strongly believe that many companies focus more on numbers—share price rises, and short-term quarterly profits than on the people in their organization, its culture, and the way people learn and develop. This damages their long-term prospects.
People are everything for an organization committed to value creation and delivering value to its customers and other stakeholders. If those people are disengaged, unfulfilled, burnt-out, or not listened to, they will underperform, and the organization’s performance will stagnate.
When companies focus on people, nurture them and put in place processes and incentives that unleash their creativity, and foster collaboration and engagement, improved performance and better financial results will follow. The incentive that underpins everything is ‘purpose’. Ultimately, motivation and engagement stem from people seeing and connecting to an organization’s higher purpose. This is how doing good can profoundly affect doing well and be the prime source of sustainability. Conversely, a 'bad' company, on the other hand, may do well on a short-term basis but its success is unlikely to be sustainable.
A major shift in management approach from traditional management models to humanized, people-first models is what is needed for companies to join the good, and increase the likelihood of sustainable success in the post-pandemic world. Organizations with a traditional procrustean approach to management, fitting people into systems, fine-tuning structures and reporting lines, and enforcing uniformity without regard to natural variation or individuality need urgently to shift to dynamic ways of operating, that empower their workforce by putting people first. As many interviewees from Humane Capital research said, working in a humane way is a matter between life and death for an organization and a matter between mere existence and true happiness for employees.
Businesses rely on teams of people and organizational structures, so they ought to support them, rather than the other way round. Organizations that get this will survive and thrive in the post-pandemic world.
Vlatka is a professor of leadership and organizational transformation at Hult International Business School where she helps thousands of leaders and organizations to improve performance and profit while creating more engaging, purposeful, and happier workplaces that do well by doing good.