Covid-19’s second-order crisis is starting to emerge: the toll it is taking on our mental health. In a global study of more than 2,700 employees across more than 10 industries undertaken by Qualtrics and SAP during March and April 2020, 75% of people say they feel more socially isolated, 67% of people report higher stress, 57% are feeling greater anxiety, and 53% say they feel more emotionally exhausted. What can CEOs and managers do? The author, himself a CEO, suggests a five-step process: 1) Open the door so staff know you are available to talk about the issue, 2) Demonstrate supportive listening, 3) Be consistent in your messaging, 4) Keep a constant pulse on how your staff are handling the stress in the aggregate, and 5) Communicate available resources.
Business leaders are justifiably focused on the here and now of the Covid-19 pandemic, but there’s a looming second-order mental health crisis that is only beginning to emerge as a result of global quarantines and a massive, sudden shift to working from home. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, 75% of people say they feel more socially isolated, 67% of people report higher stress, 57% are feeling greater anxiety, and 53% say they feel more emotionally exhausted, according to a global study of over 2,700 employees across more than 10 industries undertaken by Qualtrics and SAP during March and April 2020.
As humans we can handle change, but we do not do well with uncertainty. Given the enormous uncertainty everyone is facing —economically, personally, and professionally — these mental health statistics are as predictable as they are alarming. Using the data from the study and our own experience as CEOs, we have identified five steps every leader and manager should take to make an immediate impact:
1. Open the Door
Nearly 40% of people say their company has not even asked them how they’re doing since the pandemic began. That’s shocking. People in this group are 38% more likely to say their mental health has declined since the outbreak of the pandemic. How can we expect to help our people if we don’t even ask how they are doing? So step one is to simply ask, “Are you okay?”
I suspect that a desire to respect privacy is inhibiting these manager-employee conversations. But in our study, nearly three out five of people said they are comfortable with their manager proactively asking them about their mental health. Even more importantly, more than 40% of people said they want their manager to broach the subject. So open the door to a conversation by asking if people are okay, and then let them walk through that door in the way they are most comfortable, accepting that around 40 percent of employees will choose not to engage. That’s okay, too.
Our research shows that the mental health of your reports should not be outsourced to human resources. In fact, when people were asked to rank who they were willing to talk to about mental health concerns, (selecting from a list including their manager, peers, subordinates, HR, and company executives), people listed HR as the group they were least willing to talk to about mental health. Peers and managers were the two groups with whom people were most willing to address mental health.
2. Demonstrate Supportive Listening
For employees who do choose to talk about their mental health, managers need to practice supportive listening. Don’t try to solve everything all at once. Instead just listen, seek to genuinely understand, and ensure that people feel heard. And don’t be afraid to open up yourself. Reciprocation can be a powerful tool to build trust. Share how you personally are handling the new normal. Be vulnerable. According to our data, roughly 40% of people at every seniority level of a company have seen a decrease in mental health. That means that whether you’re the CEO, a mid-level manager, or a frontline employee, you are just as likely to be suffering. The sooner people realize they are not alone in this, the better we’ll be at supporting each other.
I think back to recent conversations I had with two members of our team. One is a single mother who is balancing home school for her two kids (one of whom is in French immersion), her job, and concern for an elderly parent who lives far away. The other is an employee who is single, lives alone, and talked about the crushing isolation he is feeling. My challenges are different, but we all have them. For all of us, this has been one of the weirdest and most emotional times of our lives. We all need to learn to demonstrate supportive listening and be appropriately vulnerable with each other, recognizing that while all of our situations are different, they are all difficult in their own way.
3. Be Consistent
Talking about mental health is not a one and done conversation. One way to help people deal with uncertainty is by providing consistency, especially in how and when you communicate. When it comes to the pandemic, more than 90% of people said they wanted at least weekly communication from their company; 29% said they prefer daily communication. When it comes to discussing mental health specifically, people say that far and away the most effective form of company communication is a phone call directly from one’s manager. Employees who say their manager is not good at communicating are 23% more likely to experience mental health declines. Regular, consistent communication from managers is essential to ensuring people feel supported.
4. Keep a Constant Pulse
It’s not just about helping our managers take care of their teams, we need to take care of our managers as well — and we need to do it while keeping a constant pulse on the company as a whole. To best do that at scale, companies should be sending a regular employee pulse survey to understand how each team, department, and the company as a whole are doing. This is not a moment to be reactive as a leader: You need to get ahead of trends and understand the sentiment of your workforce so you can take action quickly.
Our study found that nearly one in three employees say their team does not maintain informal contact while working from home. People who are lacking informal contact are 19% more likely to report a decline in mental health since the pandemic began. So much of this stems from the fact that with so many people quarantined in their own homes, we have lost the opportunity for watercooler conversations and impromptu run-ins that give us energy and spark new ideas and collaboration. We can’t replicate that exactly, but we have seen many of our teams hosting virtual happy hours to end the week or having a virtual lunch where people can just catch up, share stories, and maintain connection. By regularly running employee pulse surveys you can begin to spot problems early.
5. Communicate Available Resources
Lastly, make sure you are very clear about the mental health resources available to everyone at your company. Almost half of workers said their company has not proactively shared what mental health resources are available to them. To be sure, some people want and need to leverage those resources, but many more people just want to know that the resources are there. As we noted, people don’t do well with uncertainty. That’s why just knowing that resources are available goes a long way to ease anxiety and stress. People who said their company has proactively shared how to access mental health resources are 60% more likely to say that their company cares about their wellbeing.
The mental health crisis stemming from Covid-19 is serious and will be with us for some time to come. Let’s approach it with compassion, honesty, and openness. We will emerge from this as better leaders, better people, and better companies.
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Working parents are hungry for inspiration, connection, and a genuine response during these uncertain times. Now, more than ever, they should be role models for others.
The authors suggest: Identifying the values that are important and incorporating those values into the new normal; being honest and vulnerable with coworkers about challenges and problems; trying new ways of doing things and be willing to revise them or even scrap them altogether if they’re not working; and encouraging colleagues, kids, friends, and family to share their successes and their failures.
As working parents, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by our less-than-ideal options. We’re all hungry for inspiration, connection, and a genuine response during these uncertain times. Many working parents are turning to social media to share how they’re coping — from Pinterest-perfect home-schooling stations, to funny confessions (“We’re just letting the kids watch TV all day”), to the desperate query (“Is it wine time yet?”).
Now, more than ever, we need to be role models for each other. We’re living, striving, and working in an unprecedented time — and struggling, too — so we all need to support each other, be open and honest about our experiences, and be leaders in our workplaces, families, and communities. Drawing on the principles from our book, Parents Who Lead, we provide evidence-based recommendations — and a call to action — for how you can do so now.
Consciously embed your values into your new normal.
We are facing new choices about how we allocate our energy and attention now. It’s easy to get stuck in a reactive mindset, feeling like we are victims of these unfortunate circumstances. But those of us fortunate enough to have some freedom to choose what to focus on and when and how to do so should identify the values that are important to us and do our best to incorporate those values into our new normal.
Think about the values that you hold most dear, and bring your family into the conversation, too. Talk about what matters most. Then, consciously consider how you can create new routines that incorporate those values.
If you’re a family that values caring for the less fortunate, find ways to socially connect while physically distancing. Whether it’s sewing face masks, fostering a rescue pet as shelters close, going grocery shopping for an elderly neighbor, or drawing an inspirational message in sidewalk chalk, there are myriad ways to uplift those in need around us.
If you’re a family that values financial security, then talk with your children about how your work, now taking place at home, is essential for your family’s on-going safety and security.
If you’re a family that especially values health and fitness, explore opportunities for exercise indoors — whether it’s streaming yoga videos, running the stairs, or learning Tik Tok dance moves together.
As you make values-driven choices, you can empower others to do the same. Explore how you can shine light on your new reality, even if you’re not normally the type to do so. Maybe you’ve shied away from social media in the past — maybe it’s time to revisit the idea of connecting with your community online. But, if that’s not really your speed, you can consider opening a bit more at the start of a conference call, at the dinner table, over Face Time, or any other time you connect remotely with people you care about.
You have the power to be open about what’s going well during these times, but also where you are flailing, frustrated, and confused. Portraying an image of someone who is perfectly managing to keep up with all their work demands while also engaging fully with their children doesn’t just put a strain on you, it creates unrealistic expectations in others, and it reduces trust. Being vulnerable about the good, bad, and ugly empowers others to do the same. Especially in our work lives, many of us feel pressure to put on the façade of the “ideal worker,” endlessly devoted to career success. We hide the realities of parenthood from our colleagues for fear of being seen as less committed to our jobs.
To the extent that you can, consider how you might be more authentic about what your life looks like right now. While we’d never recommend doing something that would jeopardize your job, consider that being honest with coworkers about the challenges that you’re facing provides an opportunity for them to appreciate your contributions even more. And it may give them a greater sense of self-acceptance, as well.
This vulnerability may take many forms right now. It may mean excusing yourself from some work-related calls because your children’s needs take precedence. Or, it could simply mean choosing not to apologize if your children, pets, or household mess make an appearance during a conference call. It could mean apologizing to your children that you don’t have the time to help them or letting your friends know that your kids are playing video games all day. It might even include actively trying to destigmatize mental health challenges by sharing a sense of anxiety or telling a friend that your depression medication is keeping you going right now.
You don’t know how others are struggling. Hearing that you aren’t doing “perfectly” might just be the thing that helps them get through. Right now, while so many of us are in the same, perhaps leaky, boat, there may be an opportunity to explore the underside of the work/life integration puzzle with key stakeholders.
Experiment and iterate.
We’re all trying to figure this out and we will need to find unconventional solutions to do so. If you find a creative solution that works for your family, show it off (even if it’s a bit weird). Be a role model for finding new ways to do things, for leading change that’s sustainable because it works for all, not just you. You can share the experiments you’re trying as a work team, as a family, or as a community to inspire others to look beyond the status quo.
Try new ways of doing things and be willing to revise them or even scrap them altogether if they’re not working. Want to try making a family schedule for each day? Go for it…but if it ends up adding unneeded stress and guilt, try something different. Maybe a to-do list would work better. Or maybe it’s an opportunity to embrace a less structured lifestyle. Want to hide in a closet with a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door so you can get a few hours of uninterrupted work done? Try that too. But, if you’re not feeling it, working from a laptop on the couch next to your child might work better, even if it means your efficiency is slowed.
There are no precedents for this. As a role model, you can show others that you’re flexible and willing to find what works for you.
Bring others along with you.
Encourage your colleagues, kids, friends, and family to share their successes and their failures. As a leader and role model, you can grow the leadership capacity of others. As a parent, you can help your kids learn how to become more effective leaders in their own right — demonstrating and communicating their values under difficult circumstances. As an employee, you can set the stage for on-going authentic, creative, and brave choices.
We will remember this as an extremely difficult time. As role models, we can hope to recall it, someday down the road, as a time when we stepped up in service of others — when we lived our values, embraced our flaws and vulnerability, and deepened our connections to those around us.
If our free content helps you to contend with these challenges, please consider subscribing to HBR. A subscription purchase is the best way to support the creation of these resources.
CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
Ten years ago, on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. The fireball was visible 65 kilometers away; eleven workers died. The explosion launched the biggest accidental oil spill in history.
U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Peter Neffenger became the deputy national incident commander. Over the coming weeks and months, he discovered that his role was not micromanaging the operational response to the spill itself. Rather, it was navigating the complex issues that were consuming stakeholders at all levels: environmental ones, legal, economic, and social. Neffenger’s efforts helped create the room for people on the ground and in the water to succeed.
Our guest on the show today was on site with Admiral Neffenger, studying the response. We’ve brought him on the show to talk about today’s crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has struck economics, paralyzed some businesses and markets, and is testing leaders and managers in ways they never imagined.
Eric McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard. He’s also the coauthor, along with Leonard Marcus, of the HBR article “Are You Leading Through Crisis… Or Managing the Response?”
Eric, thanks so much for joining us.
ERIC MCNULTY: Curt, it’s a pleasure to be here.
CURT NICKISCH: We’re now a few weeks, or even a few months into this COVID-19 pandemic, depending on where you are in the world. What about this crisis feels similar to you to other ones that you’ve studied?
ERIC MCNULTY: It’s similar in that there is a major threat facing a population. There are levels of cognitive disruption, psychological disruption and emotional disruption. Which really sends people and organizations – keeps them on edge. They aren’t quite sure where to turn. It’s quite different in its scope and scale obviously, in that it’s touching virtually everyone on the planet.
CURT NICKISCH: One thing that seems particularly hard about this current situation is just the ongoing, uncertainty. I bet if you interviewed a bunch of preparedness leaders at companies and organizations before this, they would think that maybe four weeks, or two months into a crisis that they would have most of their work behind them. I bet that’s what they would have said.
ERIC MCNULTY: Exactly. In most crisis, say whether the hurricane, terror attack, a wildfire, the actual, the actual incident is relatively short from a few seconds, to a few hours, to a few days. The recovery may take quite some time. But you’re actually sort of in the fight with the actual incident for relatively a short period of time.
This as you mentioned earlier is gone on not just for weeks, but for months in parts of the world and it’s going to go on for months more. And so one of the challenges there for managers is to understand how to offboard and onboard people onto that crisis management team. Because it’s not going to be that A-team, or that first group that you can’t last forever. You physically, mentally, you can’t just do this, you know, work long hours, seven days a week forever. You’re going to wear yourself out.
So you got to be able to rotate people through the team, while maintaining an operational rhythm. And that can be a real challenge if you haven’t thought through. Do you have overlapping shifts so you can have a smooth hand off? Are roles and responsibilities clearly defined? And I do have a, for lack of better word, sort of a house style so the team dynamic isn’t changed radically when Eric steps down and Curt steps in. You want some continuity there. So it does take some practice and some having the right mindset and a common set of tools and vocabulary.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, I’ve heard of this team war room fatigue. Because a lot of companies have these incident response teams in so-called war rooms – that’s where people who kind of expected to get along on adrenaline for a certain amount of time, and work those late nights realize that this is a marathon and not a sprint.
ERIC MCNULTY: Absolutely. And it can be really hard to get those people to step back. I mean it does take discipline because you know, you’ve practiced for this, you trained for it, you’re ready. You feel responsible for it. The company has asked you to be on that war room team, that crisis management team. But you have to realize that the goal here is to be stronger, longer.
And one of the best emergency managers I ever had the privilege of meeting through the years, worked at the CDC. And he was very disciplined, but after an eight hour shift, he would leave and hand it off to someone else. Which both modeled the behavior you want to see; it demonstrated the faith he had of the other people who could step up in his role as he stepped back and because it was a rhythm, it wasn’t like you were worn out or somehow weak. It was, I’ve worked as hard as I can right now and the way the team functions best is for me to step back, someone else to step in and that has to happen across the roles.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, like it or not people are in this situation now. So maybe let’s start with some of the common mistakes that leaders get wrong in crises that, you know, whether they’re prepared for it or not, that people just tend to do wrong because they’re used to operating in a certain way. What are some of those biggest things that you think leaders get wrong in a sudden crisis?
ERIC MCNULTY: One of them I think again is that this notion that the team environment – that a crisis is a crisis because it, it’s creating some sort of existential threat to the organization, be it reputation, be it financial. But it’s not going to be solved by one person alone. You’re going to have to work as a team.
CEOs, other senior executives, their natural style is one of dominance rather than one of collaboration. So they’re natural competitors. They compete in the marketplace. They’ve competed hard against others to get to the job they’re in. And they try to outcompete the problem and a major crisis like this is what we actually have to out collaborate it.
You have to get people working together, just, not only in your senior team, but to right your organizations, what we call swarm leadership. Where people are moving in synchrony and they are able to coordinate, collaborate and communicate very smoothly. You’re not going to overpower a coronavirus. You’re not going to out think it and you’re not going to out negotiate it. Your ability to act collectively, and consistently to get you through this kind of crisis.
CURT NICKISCH: So what does that look like?
ERIC MCNULTY: Getting it right is the best example we ever, was in the Boston Marathon bombing response. 2013, a horrible day here in Boston. But when we looked back and we talk to about three dozen or so of the people in leadership positions across that response, it was the most collaborative response we had ever seen. It actually turned out that no one was in operational control, of the overall activity.
People were in charge of their chains of command, but at the leadership level they worked really well together. This is where we came up with this notion of swarm leadership based on swarm intelligence in the nonhuman, animal world. But there were behaviors that were consistent across the leaders that made that possible.
They put their egos aside. They showed high emotional intelligence and they were not trying to take credit or assign blame. Very generous and supportive of each other. Yet able to stay in their own lanes and be very credible and reliable doing the job they were supposed to do, but also able to help each other.
There was a long foundation of trust-based relationships, and overall there was unity of mission. And we’ve seen now organizations go out into the field be it Red Cross, or others, into a disaster. They have those five behaviors. They stick them up on the wall and say this is how we want to behave and this is, you know, keep your ego in check. Do your job well, but help others when you can. Make sure everybody’s clear on the overall mission and be building trust throughout it.
CURT NICKISCH: What does it look like though when people get it wrong?
ERIC MCNULTY: This notion of trying to out compete it – they over centralize it. They try to pull everything into either a single person or a very small team and say look, we’re going to make all the decisions. They want to sign off on every tweet, on every overnight express bill if they’re watching expenses. What the result is, you become a choke point because there’s only so much you can do. You squash any kind of initiative further down in the organization because everyone’s waiting for permission before they do anything. And then you become a single point of failure. If you break down and you can’t get it done, the whole organization gets paralyzed.
The classic example of this was Coca-Cola back in the ‘80s when they had a product problem and kids in Belgium and France started getting sick. And Doug Ivester the CEO pulled everything back, out of Europe, back to Atlanta. Centralized everything and I spoke to one of the then senior communications people who said we can never get ahead of, even play in the news cycle because by the time we found out what was going on we had to send it back to Atlanta for approval. By the time they got it back to us it was too late.
And so, you want agility. You want, you want to give people some clear guidelines not to go outside of – you know, don’t break the law. Take care of people. Some basic core operating principles and then give them freedom to act. Because in an event is complex and as wide scale as the coronavirus, people have got to be acting independently within the guidelines you give them, but you got to give them the freedom to, and get some fluid motion going on. Otherwise you’re going to stagnate and you’re going to get stuck behind and you become a victim.
CURT NICKISCH: I’m going to guess that when managers or leaders really try to keep close tabs and look down at what’s happening below them and try to micromanage it, that they also lose sight of the bigger picture of where the organization’s headed – not just where it is at the moment, what they’re dealing with at the moment, but also where they’re trying to get to?
ERIC MCNULTY: You’re absolutely right. Taking a narrow view is another one of those traps and the human mind is hardwired when faced with a threat to narrow its perspective. You think back to our sort of prehistoric ancestors. When they heard a rustling in the bushes they had to really quickly figure out was that going to eat them, or were they going to eat it?
And so this narrowing happens and you have to, if you’re going to lead, you have to pull back and see that bigger picture, not just the foreground, what’s happening now, but the mid-ground and the background, looking into the future. Because if you’re leading you got to be thinking about not what has to happen right this second. Hopefully you’ve got competent people around you doing that. But what are we going to need in two weeks, two months, six months?
We’re looking at coronavirus right now. You need to be thinking if there’s a lull this summer, how are you going to take best advantage of that? If cases come back with a fury in the fall and the winter, how are you going to deal with that? How does turning the things back on that you’ve already turned off, what’s that going to look like? That is always more complex than you realize. It’s not just you go ahead flip a light switch and everything’s back to normal. You’re going to have a lot of work in terms of resynchronizing your supply chain, all kinds of things are going to pop up in terms of getting back to whatever the next reality is. And as a leader you got to be looking there begin. You and half the people thinking that way to prepare you for it.
CURT NICKISCH: How do you know then as a leader when to focus on details and when to be thinking about a year or five years down the road?
ERIC MCNULTY: Well I think what I would be doing now, while I counsel senior executives to do is to just as you have a crisis response team working on things right now, have that, at least two or three people being a crisis future team. And looking out there two, three, six months down the road and be asking all those detailed questions. You can’t get obsessed with it. You might want to probe a bit to make sure they’re pushing hard enough. But say OK, we’re anticipating this is going to happen in June. This is going to happen in September. What has to be true for that to happen? What might get in the way of that happening? So you test your assumptions. But have those two or three people who are, whose only job is future, not the present, to be figuring out and watching the news, getting competitive resource, getting market research, figuring out what’s happening, looking to see what’s going on.
If they’re not absorbed by now, they have much more freedom to look forward and figure it out and to just keep reporting back to you and touching base. Because your job as a leader is to bring people into that uncertain future with confidence and hope. And if you’re going to do that you have to have some idea what you’re expecting to happen when you get there.
CURT NICKISCH: One thing about this crisis is that it’s both an economic and a health crisis. It effects people. It effects your workers. It effects how they work. How as a leader do you navigate making decisions that are right for your employees and the people who you work with and the same time trying to move an enterprise, an organization and pivot it into the future?
ERIC MCNULTY: Well Curt you’ve hit on a really important point because there is a fundamental, visceral difference in crisis that effect people personally and threaten their personal – their health, the health of their families. It’s just a whole different order of magnitude emotionally. And so I think you have to realize that until people feel some sort of emotional safety or security, they aren’t going to do well in terms of resolving the business issues.
So, it’s really important that you take care of those human factors. You remember that people are in a fear-based state, and to the extent that you can pull them out of that. And that can mean, it’s part by being a trusted transparent source of information that you are upfront about how difficult things are, the choices you may have to make, while also expressing confidence in them as a team, that you will get through this.
That you can take care of people as best you can and as best you’re financially able as well as emotionally able to do. So if you have to let people go, try to let them go with as much dignity as possible. I’ve also just in the last couple days started seeing this idea of lifeline benefits seems to be percolating up, which is that some organizations are saying, even though we have to let you go, we’re going to continue wellness benefits, or financial wellness benefits for a period of months. Maybe some healthcare coverage for a while.
Because you may want to bring those people back as you begin to recover. Who are those folks you want to be able to bring back? Because again that, it’s part of the complexity of restarting things if you have to start hiring and training that slows things down. If you can bring back good people quickly, and therefore you want to maintain that relationship with them, that’s a way to do it. Take care of your people. They will ultimately take care of you. And you have to realize this is, everyone’s operating in a place of fear right now. When you start operating from fear you tend not to do, you’re not performing optimally for sure.
CURT NICKISCH: And how do you communicate that? What is a good style and amount of communication from leaders at a time like this?
ERIC MCNULTY: I think the best thing to do is to establish a rhythm. You don’t want to over communicate. You don’t want to be in people’s faces all the time. But I think you want to have, you want to have a rhythm be it every couple of days. If it’s a major change in what’s happening with the virus for example, you may want to come out and say something, but otherwise people can expect to hear from you every couple days, twice a week.
I think it’s great now that people can take advantage of video, be it prerecorded, or live videoconferences. We have so much more capability now. Because you can communicate so much more, at a more authentic level when people can see you and not just read a memo.
Don’t be afraid to show emotion. And I think it’s also good, again this came, a practice I heard about the other day was having your senior people make the occasional random call, three, four, five levels down in the organization to people who never heard from the CFO or the CEO, just to ask how someone’s doing. Just checking in – “Curt. How’s it going? Tell me what’s going on. What’s going well?” Have a brief conversation.
You’ve got to show that you care. I mean you got to be authentic about it. It’s, it really is a matter of don’t talk about revenue. Don’t talk about sort of the usual metrics. It’s more about expressing confidence in people that we’ll get through it. We have a great team. That you have confidence in them. And that you’re going to support them as best you can going through it. And then be sure to listen. Don’t just broadcast stuff out, but have channels where you can hear back. Be that directly or through your management channels, but be able to get some feedback to how are people actually feeling? What are they concerned about?
CURT NICKISCH: You’ve worked with many companies that are good models for crisis leaders and for organizations that pivot well and navigate well through a crisis and into the future. When you look out at the companies and organizations and top leaders out there now, what have you been observing? Can you give some examples of things that you like to see and some things that you wish you hadn’t?
ERIC MCNULTY: Sure. I mean I think there are a number of people and organizations trying really hard right now, which is good. And this is now when you see the people who have built the systems and aren’t relying on individual heroes to get stuff done, but they’ve built the systems to be able to pivot in situations like this that really pay off.
I will say one of them that I was most impressed with was Lyft, the ride-sharing company that quickly tried to repurpose themselves to be able to, so their drivers could provide rides for essential workers, healthcare workers to get them to and from their shifts safely. There’s a way you can use your business strength to service social goods in the midst of crisis. It helps keep you functioning, your drivers functioning and provides an essential social service.
And that’s a way they’ve done that and that’s built from earlier capability, Airbnb is, can’t do this now, but has done this in crisis before and been a real pioneer at turning their business model into a social purpose model in disaster areas really quickly.
CURT NICKISCH: Both those companies Lyft and Airbnb, those are companies that are definitely hard hit by what’s happening now, and their revenue has to be crashing.
ERIC MCNULTY: Absolutely. But it’s looking back at what are their core business capabilities and what are their core competencies, and how do they pivot with those into something that makes sense right now? And they’re doing that and I’m sure they’re not, this is not a real moneymaking venture, but I think we see a number of businesses that are saying, how do we just generate enough revenue to stay alive? Even if we’re serving people at no profit at the moment, can we use what we know how to do and the capabilities we have to help the society get through this?
Because only if society gets through it do the businesses recover. Jet Blue for example said we’ve got pilots and aircraft. Can we move medical supplies? We’re here to do it. Other companies saying we are extending a lot of loyalty benefits and things for the next two, you know, your status is good for two years. So we are trying to think of you, the customer, we’re planning to be here. It gives a signal they plan to be here. They plan to have confidence in this going forward.
So I’ve always reacted well when I get these notifications or I talk to people and they really do demonstrate how they’re taking care of their associates, their employees. Because at the end of the day that’s the company. That’s the company you interact with are the people and if they take care of the people, it shows their head is in the right place and they’re trying to take care of business by taking care of their core asset.
CURT NICKISCH: Have you seen any CEOs or anybody saying anything that really made you scratch your head right now?
ERIC MCNULTY: I haven’t seen them so much say something that made me scratch my head, as I have some who just seem to be silent. And again, there was some initial, I think an over, over communication where everybody, whoever had your email address is sending you a note saying, we’re concerned and we’re doing something about it.
CURT NICKISCH: Right. I finally learned how many, how many companies’ mailing lists I’m on when this happened.
ERIC MCNULTY: Exactly. Right. And you ordered from us once, you ordered a pair of shoes five years ago and we’re really concerned about you.
CURT NICKISCH: I know, I know.
ERIC MCNULTY: So there is that bit of over communication you want to avoid. On the other hand, I think you need to really focus on if you’ve got inbound call centers, can people get to, can they get to people if they call in to resolve something? It’s important. And they, can they actually talk to a person and is that person empowered to take action and help? And can you sense that they feel good about what they do?
Or, is it, you know, the endless phone free and frustration and that’s, you know, that’s why the companies are getting it wrong. Not just the mass communication with their audience, but the one on one communication with them and you know, because there are things you have to call now and try to resolve and if you can’t get to a person who sounds like they care and sounds like they’re empowered to fix your problem, you wonder what else is going on.
CURT NICKISCH: So, you’ve given our listeners a lot to think about. And nobody’s going to figure it all out right away, but what are some good questions to ask yourself for some things to be thinking about what, as you start out on this journey of trying to respond to a crisis, pivot to the future and also take care of your people?
ERIC MCNULTY: You need to be asking yourself, I would do a best case, worst case question. Best case, what do we look like a year from now, two years from now? And I don’t just mean that financially, but I mean that you’re an organization where you retained the talent you want to retain. You’re attracting the talent you want to attract. Your customers are happy and growing. What does that look like and what had to be true to get you there? What are the things you got right that got you to that best case?
And then on the other side, look at the worst case and say that either you’re out of business or you’re close to it. Or, people are leaving you for competitors. Both customers and associates. What did you get wrong? And as clear eyed as you can be about that and as brutally honest as you can be with yourself and with your team, I would appoint somebody as a, one or two people as devils advocates to really make sure you’re pushing as hard as you can.
Look at those things and let, and then let them be your guide. These things will reveal themselves. There’s not a huge set of mysterious secrets here. Yes, it varies by industry and company size and geography a bit, but it is recognizing your fundamental humanity and those around you, the pain of society right now, and also the need for the economy to thrive as much as we need to solve the healthcare, the health problem right now. People are going to need jobs. We need economies to go. There’ll be casualties from that as well.
And so, recognizing those fundamental truths and then making sure you’re taking the steps to get as close to that best case as possible. And I think if you do that, the revenue and profit stuff, it almost takes care of itself.
CURT NICKISCH: In your work have you encountered a good example of that?
ERIC MCNULTY: Absolutely. I think one of the most compelling examples of that is, the company Sandler O’Neill. They were a boutique investment bank. Their headquarters were in the World Trade Center towers. And on 9/11 planes crashed and the towers came down. They lost quite a number of people. They lost two out of the three managing partners.
The surviving partner, Jimmy Dunne now found himself head of a much diminished firm and it was in danger of going out of business. And I interviewed Jimmy for our book and he talked about how he saw this as a personal crusade. That he was not going to go out of business because that would have been a victory for the terrorists.
And so his way of fighting back was to make sure they stayed in business. Rallied his team, and what he described to us was he thought of the human issues in one hand and by human issues I mean he continued salaries, paying salaries to the families of some of the deceased. He continued health benefits for those families so they weren’t left to drift. He kept on as many people as they could. And he went to every funeral personally. Every funeral he could get to, he went to.
And really concentrated on those people, those people together were the firm. Not the deals, not the file cabinets, not the contents. It was the people. And they began to battle back. And what they found was people loaned them office space. People – competitors brought them into deals to give them some business to keep them afloat. And what he said was, the more he took care of the human issues, the people issues, he had in one hand, the business issues he held in the other hand, seemed to almost take care of themselves.
Because the people he was taking care of, they were getting the business done and they were exhibiting a spirit that others wanted to help. And now they not only survived, they grew. They weathered through the 2008 financial crash when they went from being a boutique firm to actually a major firm…
CURT NICKISCH: Didn’t they, didn’t the employees take pay cuts during the financial crisis to help the company?
ERIC MCNULTY: Yes, and I’ve seen this there and other companies as well. We’re seeing it now. That in a severe economic slowdown the people at the top, take pay cuts, sometimes right down to no salary at all, for a period of time to help preserve jobs elsewhere in the organization. So those who are, had been rewarded most handsomely through the years, take the biggest cut now to keep things alive.
Because just like Jimmy after 9/11 he realized the people are the company. And so, if you have to endure some short-term pain in order to help keep other people solvent, you do that. And so, he wouldn’t take it and again, there’s been numerous examples I see at big brand name companies and lesser-known companies right now of chief executives going down to low or almost, or no pay as a way of keeping cash in the business and being able to fund more frontline employees.
When you do things like that, those stories live for years. They live for generations. They become cultural defining moments that are carried forward – that this company cares about us. That the people at the top actually are in touch and know what the experience of frontline workers is like and are willing to – they are in the fight. They’re willing to sacrifice alongside everybody else in order to get the company, get the organization through this to the other side.
CURT NICKISCH: Eric, thanks so much for talking with us today. Please stay safe and healthy.
ERIC MCNULTY: You too Curt. Thank you and thank you to all your listeners. Let’s all stay safe.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s Eric McNulty. He’s the Associate Director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative and he’s a co-author along with Leonard Marcus of the book, You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When it Matters Most and they co-wrote the HBR article, “Are You Leading Through Crisis… or Managing the Response”. You can find that along with all the free coronavirus coverage at HBR.org.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.
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In 1915, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship became trapped in ice, north of Antarctica. For the next two years, he kept his crew of 27 men alive on a drifting ice cap, then led them in their escape. How Shackleton did that has become one of the most famous leadership case studies. In the first episode of a four-part special series on leadership, HBR Editor in Chief Adi Ignatius and Harvard Business School professor and historian Nancy Koehn analyze Shackleton’s leadership during the struggle to survive. They discover lessons in building a team, learning from bad bosses, and cultivating empathy.
ADI IGNATIUS: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Adi Ignatius. This is “Real Leaders,” a special series that examines the lives of some of the world’s most compelling and effective leaders, past and present and offers lessons to all of us today.
NANCY KOEHN: Wanted, men for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.
ADI IGNATIUS: Legend has it that that’s the job ad Ernest Shackleton used to recruit the crew for his expedition to Antarctica in 1914. If you know this story you know that Shackleton and his crew never set foot on that continent. Instead their ship got trapped in ice. But it’s what happened when their original mission failed that has made Shackleton’s remarkable story of survival, one of the most famous case studies in leadership history. I’m Adi Ignatius, Editor in Chief of Harvard Business Review and I’m joined by historian and Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn. Nancy’s case study about Ernest Shackleton is a classic and her book, Forged in Crisis, is a great account of Shackleton’s story. Nancy welcome.
NANCY KOEHN: Thank you Adi. It’s a pleasure to be here.
ADI IGNATIUS: We’re starting this series with Ernest Shackleton, one of the great explorers in the age of polar exploration in the early 20th Century. To set the context in the U.S., Teddy Roosevelt is President. Ford Motor Company has just produced its first car and the race to discover the South Pole is on. So, to understand the context even more, Nancy, is this kind of the equivalent of the Space Race of the 1960s?
NANCY KOEHN: Absolutely. It’s a great analogy. It was a time when nations and patriotism were duking it out at some level in an international race, along exploration lines.
ADI IGNATIUS: So Shackleton’s first expedition to Antarctica takes place in 1902. So, Nancy, what happened in that?
NANCY KOEHN: So his first expedition which happens in the very first few years of the 20th Century, is an expedition under the command of a Naval Officer named Robert Falcon Scott. They’re trying to be the first to the Pole and that expedition goes terribly awry and Scott is forced to turn around and go back and they almost die on the way back for a number of reasons, primarily the most important of which is the temperatures and food supplies.
ADI IGNATIUS: OK. So this fails, but Shackleton wants more. He goes back.
NANCY KOEHN: He wants more. When Scott publishes an account of the expedition that’s scathing toward Shackleton, that gets his dander up and he immediately begins planning for his own expedition. Having learned a lot of things from Scott that he thinks he won’t do.
ADI IGNATIUS: OK. So here’s lesson number one. What do you do when you have a bad boss? I mean, to what extent does he learn lessons from an initial foray gone badly?
NANCY KOEHN: Extremely important lessons. One, make your decisions and stick with them. That’s something Scott has a lot of trouble with. And a lot of those decisions in leadership involve displeasing or not making everyone happy. That’s a second related lesson. Third lesson: make sure you have adequate food supplies and transport that you can depend on. He wasn’t a very good process engineer and planner. And so Shackleton learns from that and says I’m going to be very good about that. I’m never going to be in charge of an expedition that runs short on food supplies. Again, almost in intentional opposition to Scott. So what’s important I think here for our time and for all of us that have worked for bad bosses or people we don’t agree with or people we feel frustrated by is what can I learn from this person about how I will not act as a manager and a leader.
ADI IGNATIUS: So Shackleton leads his own expedition to the South Pole in 1907. That fails to reach the South Pole. So, 1914 he returns to Antarctica for his third mission and this is the one that becomes so famous. So it’s interesting to think about Shackleton almost as an entrepreneur. He takes on some of the tasks that are at once both profound, but also mundane. Hiring a team, raising money. I think particularly the way in which he built his team is remarkable and weird and instructive.
NANCY KOEHN: That is exactly, that’s a great set of descriptives. So Shackleton didn’t use this language, but here’s what he did and I’ll say a word about how. He hired for attitude and trained for skill. That’s the essence of what he did. So, less about what have you got on your resume that makes you look like you’d be a good polar scientist, or a good polar navigator and more about what’s your attitude and how, what has that attitude affect your ability to deal with these very high-risk situations? So the way he gets to attitude in the hiring process is he asks people to do things like sing a song. Do a dance. He tries to get at their underlying default kind of character, am I pessimistic, am I optimistic? How do I deal with different kinds of situations?
ADI IGNATIUS: So was he hiring people who pleased him, or do you think he really was thinking at that high level about these attributes?
NANCY KOEHN: Absolutely the latter. Absolutely thinking about what have I got here? What have I got in this scientist? What have I got in this doctor? What have I got in this enlisted man? What kind of attitudes do I have? How are they suited to the environment that I know well in Antarctica? He’s knows it, he’s been there with good and bad and less good results. And very importantly, not just what attitudes, what collection of attitudes do I have, but how do they fit together? He was a brilliant kind of conductor if you will, of teams. Because teams aren’t just kind of set of resumes you’ve got. They’re the people and their attitudes and their experience, and how they work together. So he was very careful about choosing his ensemble.
ADI IGNATIUS: When I interview people should I have them tell me a joke and sing a little song and just get a sense of their ability to respond to a weird request?
NANCY KOEHN: Absolutely. That’s exactly what he’s doing. That’s a very good way of characterizing it. You can also ask them, you know, when you hire people about what was their most confusing? What was their most, what was their greatest moment of self-doubt? Shackleton got that kind of thing as well. And he understood it long before we were writing about it here at places like the Harvard Business School.
ADI IGNATIUS: So by now Shackleton has his team for the Endurance mission assembled. Now what happens first?
NANCY KOEHN: So he sets off in August 1914 almost exactly at the time that World War I breaks out. And he has to ask the Assistant Lord of the Navy, Winston Churchill if he can go ahead and go or if they need the ship and the men for military service, and Churchill says, “Proceed.” And Shackleton hightails it out of Dodge and gets himself down, first to South America to take on supplies and then they head south and east to a small whaling station, this is their last outpost before they get to Antarctica, the continent. And the whalers say to Shackleton, “The icebergs are very far north this year and you’re going to have trouble getting through the jigsaw puzzle ice going down there.”
ADI IGNATIUS: Remember we’re heading south.
NANCY KOEHN: We’re heading south. And Shackleton waits a month, waiting for the ice to kind of clear and it doesn’t, and he sets off. He was arguably reckless, or a little bit cavalier. Maybe a little bit more than a little, but he heads south. They make their way through these, and there’s astounding pictures of this, through this jigsaw puzzle of ice to the coast of Antarctica. And in January. So they left in August. In January, late January, just as they see the coast of Antarctica, but as they’re still 80 miles away, icebergs lock the ship in a vice. Tons and tons and tons of ice locking it in place. No one knows where they are. The radio doesn’t work. After a month or so it’s really clear that they’re not going to break free of the ice. They have to wait for it to melt, and if the ship survives being held in a vice that long, there’s very, if it survives they may get back to the coast, but he thinks increasingly as the days becomes weeks and the weeks become months into 1915, that their expedition is over. So very interesting leadership moment. I can’t get to my original goal. What in the heck do I do? And that is a very interesting pivot moment for Shackleton.
ADI IGNATIUS: We’re talking months and months locked in the ice, freezing temperature, no light at times. I mean it’s sort of unfathomable. It doesn’t even kind of register in today’s terms.
ADI IGNATIUS: It doesn’t. So the ship is locked in January of 1915. They will live on the ice for almost two years. About 20 months all told. Most of that time they will be living in tents because the ship sinks. The ice crushes the ship and sinks it in November, 10 months after they’re first stuck. The ship is battered into pieces and the men live for the rest of the time in tents with lifeboats on the ice. So it’s a tremendously long, as you said, unfathomable period that they are living in this high stakes situation. But he now has another issue, and this is really important for leaders today. How do you manage the energy of yourself and your team when the stakes suddenly get high, the volatility, your uncertainty increases, and there’s suddenly a new worst case scenario that people can keep on running as a movie in their heads. That, all those things are his enemies. Right? If his men start doubting that they will survive, if they start fighting among themselves, if their anxiety becomes its own actor on the stage, other things can kill them than just the temperature and food supplies. So what is so interesting about Shackleton in this moment is how he quickly pivots into I gotta manage their energy. I gotta create stability for them. I gotta give them the sense that they can do harder, better things together and under my command than they could do on their own. And that is what he proceeds to do.
ADI IGNATIUS: Coming up after the break we will learn exactly how Shackleton did that.
ADI IGNATIUS: Welcome back to “Real Leaders,” a special series of the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Adi Ignatius with Nancy Koehn.
NANCY KOEHN: Hey there.
ADI IGNATIUS: All right, let’s get back to the story. So Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 men are stranded on an ice floe near Antarctica with no idea when or how or if they will ever be able to get home. What I want to know is how in the world does Shackleton keep his crew motivated for all this time?
NANCY KOEHN: He shows up every day in terms of his mission. So we are rarely taught as leaders, managers, parents, teachers that how you get through your day, how a leader shows up, what your body language is, are you looking at your phone as you sit down in a meeting immediately with everyone around you. If you’re doing that everyone else will be doing that. Shackleton understands that. He looks confident. He carries himself carefully. We know from his diaries that he was nervous. He didn’t always know the answer, but he is not showing up with his team saying, “Hey guys, I didn’t sleep well. Can anyone help me get right with this anxiety?” He never does that. He has someone, his first mate Frank Wild, that he can talk to, but he is consistently showing up as a man who cares about his men and who believes that they together will get home safely. That’s the first thing. Really important lesson today as volatility, pace of change increases. Second thing he does is he understands something that all parents come to understand, which is that routine is incredibly important to creating stability and confidence and belief in self for human beings. So he has, all the way through this story, has the men on routines. On the ship, and then when the ship goes down, is crushed by the ice in November of 1915, he has a routine for the men on the ice. He has a duty roster. Everyone has a job every day. Everyone is responsible for walking three miles around the ice so they get their exercise. They don’t have Fitbits, but he knows that exercise is good for the men. He tells them its mental medicine, is what he called it. There was forced socialization, so no one was allowed to retreat their cabins when they were on the ship after dinner, on in the case of their tents, no one was allowed to be alone in their tent after dinner. They mixed. There were games. There were presentations. There were plays. So this idea that routine and camaraderie prevents doubt and disillusionment and it’s relative despair and then discord among the team, he understands very well and he acts to prevent that. And the third thing I think that he does that’s incredibly important, just as important as these other two things, is he has this great sense of empathy. So when he sees a man’s, for example, energy flagging and this happened a number of times, over the course of the time that they were stranded, he will order up hot milk for everyone. But he does it for everyone so that the man who he sees flagging isn’t embarrassed, isn’t called out, isn’t singled out. He does it, and the idea is energy, food, feeding and watering is something that bolsters your spirits. Gives you more confidence. Can help you combat doubt or despair, or ennui. And so he does that all the time. These small things that without making a person embarrassed, give them more confidence, give them more strength, give them more resilience.
ADI IGNATIUS: So a few points. One, you’re certainly making the case that it’s good to hire people who can sing a song and dance a jig if you have a year of nights to somehow spend together, but also delivering hot milk to everyone when there’s one person who’s flagging. I think it avoids the embarrassment. I guess it also avoids signaling to somebody that we’re worried that you’re circling the drain.
NANCY KOEHN: Exactly. Exactly. There’s a moment when the men are so miserable and he’s so worried about as he called it, morale, that he says, order up double rations for four days. Needed to improve morale. And like the men’s diaries, most of them kept diaries, say things like, “feeling much better. Full as a tick.” So he understands in this empathic intuitive way that my most important resource is my men’s self-belief and their belief in their group ability to get home safely.
ADI IGNATIUS: So Shackleton clearly has this enormous reservoir empathy. To what extent is that just his personality and to what extent is that calculated?
NANCY KOEHN: I think most of what he does is calculated. Once he’s on the ice and the ship goes down, and the mission of walking across the Antarctica is over, everything he does in this very high-stakes situation, when he’s talking about keeping his men alive, is calculated. That’s what’s so interesting. And I mean calculation with a great deal of admiration and pragmatism when I say that. This is someone who says, “I have to keep them alive. I’m going to be very thoughtful and serious about what I do and very aware.” And so, it’s calculated empathy that he’s using and he’s very careful to think about how he distributes it, so no one feels left out and it’s done in the interest of what he sees now as the, you know, as an extremely important goal. I’m responsible for these people. I must bring them home alive.
ADI IGNATIUS: And is that goal, that mission selfless or selfish?
NANCY KOEHN: I think it’s got parts of both if you will. I mean he really cares about bringing them home alive. It is he in a sense rising into how service to others can make us our best selves, make us our strongest. Unlock and unleash our superpowers. So there’s that piece. But this is a man who’s been thirsting for fame and glory for all his life in some sense, or since he first decided to join the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. So there’s an element of not I. I’m not going to be the man who sees 27 men and myself die on the ice. So there’s a real self-interested piece too. But I think the most important piece is what he discovers inside himself, which is, “I owe it to these men. I owe it to my command to bring them home alive.” And I think that is primarily what powers him through his own moments of doubt.
ADI IGNATIUS: It’s this incredible flexibility of realizing OK, the mission going to the South Pole. This is long over, but we’re not retreating with our tail between our legs. And by the way, this is the hardest thing in the world to try to get us all back, but this is the greatest mission of my life.
NANCY KOEHN: Exactly. Exactly. And the ability to say, the flexibility, the adaptability, the ability to say that’s no longer our mission. I’m turning to the future, the new mission, and I’m not going to look back on stalling. So what he doesn’t do with his men or himself is keep saying, “how did this happen? This is terrible.” Let’s do a court and a tribunal to uncover why this thing didn’t work and why we got stuck. He doesn’t do any of that. And that’s so important for leaders in a transforming organization or a very volatile time. Howard Schultz came to my HBS classroom. He was then CEO of Starbucks, to talk about the company’s transformation and his own kind of really difficult moment when the company was about to go under in 2007 and 2008. And someone asked him about what he did with the mistakes that he made and what they were. And he said, “that’s a great question. I tried to learn quickly from them, but I couldn’t allow myself the luxury of looking backward for very long, or very often. We had too much work to do. I had to face forward.” So that’s a really important lesson as well. I think for lots of high achieving, highly controlling, highly successful people.
ADI IGNATIUS: But what about owning them? I mean we, I think we demand that our leaders own their mistakes. You know it was Shackleton, he disregarded advice, like maybe you shouldn’t go so far south because of the ice floes. So I guess like today we would say well you have to own it. I’m not sure he did that. It seems like more he —
NANCY KOEHN: He didn’t own it publicly. There was no, you know, it’s my fault, or I take responsibility. There was no Johnson & Johnson kind of moment with Jim Burke the CEO –
ADI IGNATIUS: The Tylenol moment.
NANCY KOEHN: Right. This is our problem. We own it. We’ll make it right. And yet, he owned it completely. I can’t help, but think some of the resilience and the determination, and the extraordinary improvisation of this story, which just gets more and more and more and more difficult for almost two years. Some of that that he harnessed or accessed and honed it himself was partly about the guilt that he felt that under my watch with my decision making, we got into this place. I think that was part of the story too. I think Howard Schultz would tell you that was part of his motivation for using all his powers, and he worked incredibly hard to save Starbucks, because he felt responsible. So that piece, he did own it. He didn’t own it publicly, but he didn’t have the luxury because he had to keep the men’s faith in him, and a public admission, a public confession, at that moment in the naval hierarchy of early 20th Century, British seaman and scientists would not have worked.
ADI IGNATIUS: Better to just hand out some warm milk.
NANCY KOEHN: Hand out warm milk and show the men that you are, you are on it.
ADI IGNATIUS: I guess what’s remarkable is that the group didn’t turn on him. It’s hard to imagine, I don’t know a parallel situation. A company, let’s say, that isn’t succeeding, it isn’t producing for month after month after month and just trying to survive and at some point people saying, “This isn’t working. Let’s try plan B.”
ADI IGNATIUS: They do, and there’s one moment, one real moment when mutiny becomes a possibility. And Shackleton quells it. One of the important things he does is say, in violation of Maritime Law, to the troublemaker, the person who wants to mutiny, he says, “Look, I know the ship went down and my Maritime Law you’re not allowed to be paid. I don’t have to pay you from the moment the ship goes down.” He says, “I’m going to pay you out of my own pocket. You’ll get paid when we pull in to the, you know, into London on the Thames.” So that quells a lot. That does a lot to appease the doubting Thomas’s because it says something about what he cares for and what he’s willing to do for his men. But in any event, here’s the secret sauce on the mutiny. Years after this expedition the BBC went back in the early 30s and interviewed, the radio interviewed all the survivors. And they asked them, “How did you do this?” And all of them, all the men, two or one said, “the boss,” which was their nickname for Shackleton, “made us believe that we could each do it.” So there was something incredibly sustaining about that definition of leaders from David Foster Wallace, that leaders help us do things. Better, more important things. Harder, better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own, that Shackleton tapped into which each of those men. That 20 years after this happened they would say, “he, his faith in me made me believe I could do it. And that was the most important thing.”
ADI IGNATIUS: And what do we know about how he did that? I mean part of it was his own posture and continence, but how did he connect with the people that they believed that about themselves?
NANCY KOEHN: A combination, I think of again, frequent Town Hall meetings with the group. That he talked to them as a group every other day or so about what was happening, what he thought was happening, weather, navigate, longitude, latitude. Partly as important through this individual one on one stuff. Now he had 27 men, so it was a lot easier to do than if you’re in a company of 100s or thousands of people. But he made a point with each person on a regular basis to connect with them, in a very intimate way. Sometimes he talked about poetry. Sometimes we talked about stamp collecting. Sometimes we just talked about the seal meat that cook just made. But that combination of we can do this. I got your back, and “Oh, Chris, or oh, Randolph, or [Thomas] Orde-Lees, we got it right.” So that was incredibly important. The personal and the large-scale leadership that he evidenced over and over again. And, as you just said. He’s showing up. They believe, he believes. And that was incredibly important.
ADI IGNATIUS: That to me is one of the biggest takeaways for anytime that, you know, there’re plenty of people who rise to the top, get the top job and then they’re not present. They can’t sustain it. And really that’s a great contrast that Shackleton was present. He was a leader every single day, whether it was giving orders or more kind of soft power things, but just being present. You don’t walk into the office and sit at your computer and —
NANCY KOEHN: Shut your door.
ADI IGNATIUS: Shut your door.
NANCY KOEHN: Absolutely. And I think the personal piece is important as well. It was personal. I think all great leaders have a big element of what they do that’s very personal to them. It’s part of who they are. And it’s part of their identity and that’s part of what fuels them.
ADI IGNATIUS: The rest of the story is like something out of an adventure movie. Shackleton and his crew drift on the ice for almost two years. Finally, they spot an island in the distance. They have three lifeboats that they’d taken off the ship before it sank. So they decide to set off and try to sail to that island.
NANCY KOEHN: And it is a hellacious journey. The seas are really rough. The boats risk getting lost from each other, so they have to anchor them together. The men get terrible diarrhea. Shackleton worries by the end of the third day that some of his men are going to die en route.
ADI IGNATIUS: But they make it to Elephant Island. They’re on dry land again. But they’re not going to be rescued there. Way too remote. So Shackleton decides to make an even more dangerous journey by boat. To head back to the whaling station where they had warned Shackleton about the ice being too thick. This is South Georgia Island. It is 800 miles away. So Shackleton and five men head out in a lifeboat that they have sort of converted into sailboat. Everybody else stays behind on Elephant Island.
NANCY KOEHN: And this is as dreadful as the open boat journey was to get to Elephant Island. This is worse. They’re going to try and traverse these incredibly difficult seas. Seas that even the most experienced mariner would tell you are almost impossible to sail through. At one point, close to the end of the journey a huge storm erupts in that part of the South Atlantic. It’s such a big storm that it sinks a ship with over 500 people on it in nearby waters, although the expedition doesn’t know that. So they’re going to face these huge weather obstacles. Everything seems stacked against their success. But somehow, they make it to South Georgia Island. The other side of the island from the whaling station and because the boat is damaged they can’t sail around. They have to dock there.
ADI IGNATIUS: So they make it. I mean these guys never get to do the victory dance. They have to walk across the entire island. It’s uncharted territory. Mountains, rough terrain, but they do finally get to the whaling station. But even now it’s not exactly story over.
NANCY KOEHN: No, it’s not. Shackleton now has to get a ship capable of getting back across those 800 miles of difficult ocean to pick up the 22 remaining men on Elephant Island. He gets a boat pretty quickly after they arrive at South Georgia, but the boat goes only a certain distance before again, those terrible icebergs threaten to grab it and lock it in the ice, so he has to turn back. That happens not once, not twice, but thrice in the coming months. So May becomes June. June becomes July. July becomes August, and Shackleton still doesn’t have a boat. He is worried. He is going grey. He is starting to drink. On August 31st, 1916, in a Chilean tugboat he finally makes it. And the men who see the ship on the island come pouring out of this little overturned lifeboat, in which they were having lunch. That is what they were living in. And he starts counting them as the run to the shore, and he sees that all 22 are alive. And the man with, him Tom Crean, one of the crew members who stayed with him, said the years just fell off his face and he looked so incredibly happy.
ADI IGNATIUS: So they all make it.
NANCY KOEHN: They all make it. They all make it home, where they are met by a world completely different than the one they left. You know, millions have been killed. Because the war’s still going on. It’s 1916. Tragically two of the men on the expedition die within months of getting home on the battlefields of Europe. And the war ends and Shackleton is heavily in debt from the expedition, and he travels to America and gets on the speaking circuit, where he has some acclaim and interest by virtue of the story. And then comes back to England and starts hatching plans to go again. Of all the interesting pieces of the story, this part is just as interesting. I think we’ll go again. You know it was such a great experience this last time.
ADI IGNATIUS: That was so fun.
NANCY KOEHN: We had such a success. It was so enjoyable, let’s go again. And beginning in 1920, he puts the call out to his old crew, and they’re scattered. They’re in four corners. Some of them are in Asia and whatnot. One’s in Russia. And he puts the call out and says, you know, “My lads, let’s go again.” And amazingly about 12 come right back to London to join the boss. I mean talk about the power of leadership and individual lives. Like, the boss calls, we’re there.
ADI IGNATIUS: Amazing. So what point then does, so you said Shackleton wrote a book and it was something. But at a certain point his story really becomes a big deal. That people realized that this was an expedition that failed miserably and yet is one of the greatest examples of leadership that we know. And how does that happen?
NANCY KOEHN: So, beginning in the 1980s, there’s this kind of ground swell of interest, not just in England but around the world, in Shackleton. There’s Shackleton societies. There are Shackleton conventions. There have been a spate of movies, documentaries, books, cases. I mean this is by far and away the most — I’m a Historian. People don’t buy Harvard Business School cases to sell you history. But of all the cases I’ve ever written in a long time at the school, this is the most popular. He’s incredibly interesting to people today and I think a lot of it has to do with who he became in a very turbulent situation. The way he made himself better in very dire circumstances and how that self-making. Right? Great leaders are made, not born. How that self-making affected all these other people. Those are tremendously important issues today. And he, in the stark white surroundings of that story in Antarctica, teaches us, you know, with great clarity their importance and how they can be used and accessed.
ADI IGNATIUS: I don’t want to blow by that. Great leaders are made, not born. And I know you believe that and I know you —
NANCY KOEHN: I don’t believe it. I know it because I’ve been studying it for 25 years. [LAUGHTER]
ADI IGNATIUS: On our next episode of “Real Leaders,” Nancy Koehn and I will be talking about the writer and environmentalist, Rachel Carson.
NANCY KOEHN: Many of us know her as someone who really helped create the modern environment and movement by writing an incredibly important book that was published in the early 60s called Silent Spring. But something that’s less well-known is that she was a complete introvert. She preferred walking along Maine coastlines to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. And yet, her influence, her impact are as great as those of some of our greatest and most influential Presidents.
ADI IGNATIUS: This episode was produced by Anne Saini and edited by Curt Nickisch. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt, and Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. I’m Adi Ignatius, Editor in Chief of Harvard Business Review. Thanks for listening to “Real Leaders,” a special series of the HBR IdeaCast.
If you have ever wondered whether your genuine enjoyment of helping others teeters on over-indulgence, there a few things you can to do overcome agency addiction, or avoid it altogether. First, ask yourself a few questions: When you’re not helping others, do you feel anxious or aimless? Do you feel defensive or dismissive when you learn that the people you helped have found another’s advice helpful, or that they didn’t consult you on a problem? Do you often imagine helping others with life-changing advice? Answering yes to a few of the above doesn’t necessarily confirm you over-help, but it could indicate that it is something you should watch out for. Next, commit to being an equal partner, and not a savior. A telling sign of over-helping is when you find yourself doing more to help others than they do for themselves. You can also avoid dependency by measuring improvement. The greatness of a coach can be measured by their ability to help someone grow to a point of no longer needing them.
There has arguably never been a better time for employees seeking professional guidance. With the rapid increase of coaches, consultants, and advisors in the workplace, as well as the popular, and growing, trend of “the leader as a coach,” getting access to help (for most) is no longer challenging. Those who work with coaches are often viewed as admirable, and leaders who bear the title themselves do so like a badge of honor — despite the fact that, just a few years ago, even asking for help was considered weak.
There are many benefits to this unfolding shift in organizational culture. Most notably, it will allow people to admit limitations without fear, and make learning both safe and expected. But could having so much help also have a dark side?
Recently, I overheard someone exclaim, “I’m just a coaching addict! I love watching people have breakthroughs.” It turns out, this sentiment is not a unique one. Despite our many good intentions, it is indeed possible for coaches and leaders to over-help those seeking advice. In his book, The Advice Trap, author Michael Bungay Stainer explores our inherent obsession with giving advice. He says, “As soon as someone starts talking, our Advice Monster looms out of our subconscious, rubbing its hands and declaring, ‘I’m about to add some value to this conversation!’ The dangerous core belief underneath our Advice Monster is, ‘You’re better than the other person.’”
Behavioral experts agree that “helping” does indeed have the potential to become an addiction. When we help others, our brains emit three chemicals, often referred to as the happiness trifecta:
Serotonin (produces intense feelings of wellbeing)
Dopamine (intensifies motivation)
Oxytocin (increases a sense of connection to others)
The “feel good” outcome of this combination naturally makes us want to repeat it. But when our need to help becomes so insatiable that our sense of purpose is tied directly to others, specifically, them needing our guidance, it is no longer other people that we are helping. It is ourselves.
Psychologists refer to this particular problem as agency addiction, or The White Knight Syndrome. It is defined as a need to rescue others through helping — with our advice, coaching, or ideas — in order to bolster our feelings of self-importance. Whereas those with a healthy sense of agency are just as gratified by helping others succeed as they are seeing them succeed on their own.
This phenomenon could perhaps be a consequence of working in a knowledge economy. This kind of ever-changing, highly innovative environment can intensify our need to feel useful. For many employees today, contribution is measured in adopted ideas, insightful analyses, or answers to hard questions. What we produce is inseparably tied to who we are. At one firm I consulted with, this was true to a precarious extent. A partner at the firm was so bright, generous, and willing to help anyone that his colleagues referred to him as “the answer ATM.” His motto was, “You’re only as good as your last idea.” Privately, however, he suffered with depression and anxiety, unable to separate his sense of value from the help he offered those around him.
If you have ever wondered whether your genuine enjoyment of helping others teeters on over-indulgence, there a few things you can to do overcome agency addiction, or avoid it altogether.
Monitor your internal narratives.
The best way to test whether or not you have an inclination to over-help is to turn inward and take a hard look at your own mind. Ask yourself these questions and answer them honestly:
When I’m not helping others, do I feel anxious or aimless?
Do I offer others unsolicited advice, even in casual social settings, under the guise of “just trying to be helpful?”
Do I feel defensive or dismissive when I learn that the people I helped have found another’s advice helpful, or that they didn’t consult me on a problem?
Do I imagine helping others with life-changing advice, visualizing how my help could be vital to their success?
Do I feel insecure when someone I help questions or doesn’t take my advice?
Do I fish for praise after giving advice, or need the other person to acknowledge that I was helpful?
Do I feel taken advantage of, like I’ve made a sacrifice, after a stressful period of helping?
Answering yes to a few of the above doesn’t necessarily confirm you over-help, but it could indicate that it is something you should watch out for. If you answered yes to all of the above, or feel concerned about this topic, you may need to consider doing some deeper work to identify where and how you might have fused your sense of identity with giving others help in the first place.
Commit to being an equal partner, and not a savior.
The greatest helpers set clear expectations from the outset. One of the first boundaries I set with clients is, “I will never care about your success more than you do.” A telling sign of over-helping is when you find yourself doing more to help others than they do for themselves. If a coach or leader routinely reminds clients or direct-reports of commitments they’ve made, accepts excuses when those commitments are missed, and even steps in to do some of the work for them, then the partnership is not equal. And if that coach or leader finds the superlative expressions of gratitude privately satiating (“I can’t thank you enough — you really saved me!”), their inner white knight has been activated. To be a great helper, you must be willing to let those you help suffer the consequences of their own choices when they fall short. Adhering to clear, mutual accountabilities makes success a shared outcome.
Avoid dependency by measuring improvement.
The consulting and coaching professions have been appropriately criticized for having economic models that incent extending revenue streams after clients no longer need them. Similarly, leaders often feel insecure about the talents of those they lead surpassing them. But the fundamental reason behind any coaching relationship is to help the other person realize improvement. The greatness of a coach can be measured by their ability to help someone grow to a point of no longer needing them. Similarly, the greatness of a leader can be measured by their willingness to let others outshine them. Cultivating dependency only makes the other person weaker, even if it temporarily makes you feel powerful.
To avoid this, helpers should measure progress against defined objectives for improvement. For example, if a coach is working with a leader to improve their ability to delegate, they should track progress on delegation opportunities to ensure they don’t rehash old ground. While it’s reasonable for new needs or opportunities for help to arise, continuing to be “needed” for the same issue for too long is a clear sign that the lack of progress has become what is gratifying to both the helper and the one being helped (it’s often safer to stay helpless and keep relying on the helper to be rescued).
Apply the right amount of pressure.
One of the common complaints leaders share with me is, “My coach didn’t really push me that hard. We just talked during our sessions, but I didn’t feel challenged.” Many in advisory professions fear putting their relationships at risk by being “too honest” about issues that must be addressed. Likewise, many leaders avoid giving hard feedback to dodge conflict. I’ve heard coaches and consultants justify pulling their punches with statements like, “I’m not sure they’re ready to hear that.” I’ve heard leaders avoid addressing underperformance with, “Let’s give them one more quarter to turn this around.” While it’s prudent to thoughtfully prepare leaders to hear tough news, it’s equally important to be honest about whose interest you are serving by delaying it. A coach or consultant’s greatest value to a client is their ability to see and offer the unvarnished truth, no matter how difficult it is to hear. Followers trust leaders that deliver hard messages in respectful, caring ways.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen bullying coaches and leaders whose bluntness borders on abusive, leading to the loss of confidence and commitment on the part of those being helped. They speak in condescending dogma and bark declarations. Both avoidant and bully helpers reach the same outcome — keeping those they help in need of them. To become great, leaders and coaches must learn to determine the right degree of pressure to apply — it should be enough to sustain confidence and commitment while making tangible progress.
Contributing to others’ success is a sacrosanct privilege. “First, do no harm” applies as much to us as it does to physicians. It’s a wonderful feeling to know others rely on our help. But when our desire for impact contorts into a need to be indispensable and pivotal to others’ achievement, we’ve started our decent to the very insignificance we fear. Because when those we help figure out we are serving our egos instead of them, they back away. In a world where who we are and what we do have become so closely connected, it’s especially critical for helpers to keep a healthy separation between them. Great help is what you give, it’s not who you are.
Everyday incentives typically come in one of two forms—discounts or surcharges—and are usually put in place for a simple reason: money motivates. And sure enough, it has been demonstrated time and time again that people change their behavior when they are financially incentivized: it’s pleasurable to earn money, and painful to lose it. But is it just the financial aspect that motivates us? Or is there something else influencing us too? Recent research suggests there is. In four studies, researchers find that the structure of an incentive—as either a surcharge or a discount—sends a subtle message to people about what others think and do. The work shows that when people encounter surcharges (vs. discounts), they perceive that the incentivized behavior is a stronger social norm.
Think about the last time you went to your neighborhood coffee shop. Did they offer you a discount for bringing your own coffee mug? This is what happens at Starbucks, where U.S. locations offer a 10-cent discount to customers who bring their own mugs. Or, perhaps you were charged for not bringing your own mug? This is what happens at Stabucks locations in Germany, where customers face a 5-cent paper cup charge.
Small incentives such as these are popping up everywhere. Many grocery stores around the world encourage reusable bag use by imposing small discounts for bringing your own bags or small surcharges for when you don’t. You may even face similar incentives at work, as more and more employers offer discounts for healthy behaviors (e.g., discounts on insurance premiums for enrolling in wellness programs) and impose charges for unhealthy ones (e.g., higher premiums for smokers).
These everyday incentives typically come in one of two forms—discounts or surcharges—and are usually put in place for a simple reason: money motivates. And sure enough, it has been demonstrated time and time again that people change their behavior when they are financially incentivized: it’s pleasurable to earn money, and painful to lose it.
But is it just the financial aspect that motivates us? Or is there something else influencing us too? Our recent research suggests there is.
In four studies, with nearly 2,000 participants, we find that the structure of an incentive—as either a surcharge or a discount—sends a subtle message to people about what others think and do. Our work, conducted along with our colleague On Amir, shows that when people encounter surcharges (vs. discounts), they perceive that the incentivized behavior is a stronger social norm. For example, in one study, 302 participants read about a coffee shop that incentivizes customers to bring reusable mugs. Participants who learned that the shop charges customers for not bringing their own mugs inferred that bringing a mug is more common and more socially expected compared to people who learned it offers a discount. On top of that, people who learned about a surcharge (vs. discount) thought that they would feel more embarrassed and guiltier if they did not comply with the expectation. And this anticipated emotional reaction increased people’s intentions to bring a mug to the store.
As social animals, humans are highly motivated to fit in with their peers—that is, to follow what they perceive to be a social norm. For this reason, many messaging campaigns have focused on social norms to successfully change a slew of behaviors, ranging from healthy eating to hotel towel re-use. These and many more examples suggest that when people infer strong social norms, they are more likely to carry out the normative behavior.
Our research proposes that encountering surcharges works in much the same way: they subtly send the message that performing the targeted behavior is a stronger norm, motivating people to take part in order to fit in. What’s more, we find that the people who care a lot about what others think of them are the most sensitive to surcharges. Those who report caring about their social reputation are much more likely to comply with a surcharge than with a discount. Whereas people who don’t seem to care much about fitting in with their peers don’t tend to change their behavior in response to the framing of the incentive.
Social norms encourage lasting change
Shifting social norms is particularly appealing not only to motivate behavior in the moment, but also because it can lead to lasting behavioral changes. Whereas offering a monetary incentive (including a discount) may indeed encourage one-time behaviors, our research suggests that framing that incentive as a surcharge can have longer-term effects on behavior because it signals a social norm.
For example, in a study of 602 participants, we found that those who learned about a plastic bag surcharge at a grocery store inferred that bringing one’s own bag was more typical and appropriate compared to those who learned about a bag discount. In turn, the individuals exposed to a surcharge said they would be more likely to bring their own bags to an entirely different grocery store in town that had no bag incentive—simply because they had learned that bringing reusable bags is more of a social obligation in that community.
In another experiment, 294 students at a large university learned that we were encouraging people to use hand sanitizer (it was flu season!) before using campus computers (a breeding ground for germs). Prior to entering the computer area, students were presented with an opportunity to buy a pack of gum. Half of these people learned that an extra charge would be added to their purchase if they didn’t use hand sanitizer, while the other half learned that a discount would be added for using it. Later that day, research assistants covertly observed the individuals as they walked by a bottle of hand sanitizer when leaving the computer lab. Sure enough, those individuals who had learned about this surcharge earlier were over twice as likely to use the hand sanitizer later—even with no reminder and no financial incentive—as people who had learned about a discount. This suggests that surcharges are not only financially motivating, but they also teach people that the behavior is more of a social norm—a message that appears to shape their later behavior.
What does this mean? As more and more organizations and governments use small, everyday incentives to encourage certain behaviors, our research suggests that these incentives are more powerful than we realize: they signal critical information about the popularity and appropriateness of a behavior. The seemingly simple decision of how to frame these incentives (as surcharges or discounts) can have surprisingly strong and lasting effects on people’s actions. Even the people who may not care to change their behavior for a 5-cent, 10-cent, or even $2 incentive may still be affected by surcharges, not for the money, but because they wish to fit in with their peers. As a result, these small surcharge incentives can capture a larger audience than previously believed, and can change behavior not only in the moment, but also down the line.
The managers who craft incentives to motivate their employees, and the policymakers and marketers who create incentives to change consumers’ behavior, would be wise to consider the potential broad and rippling effects that can follow.
Limitations of surcharges
Yet, the power of surcharges is not without limits. Before imposing a surcharge, it is important to consider the existing beliefs of the community members who will be affected. If the community thinks that the incentivized behavior aligns with their local or organizational beliefs (for example, a 10-cent bag surcharge in a community who cares a great deal about the environment), they are more likely to support it. On the other hand, if the surcharge goes too much against the grain (imagine trying to impose a bag charge in a community that doesn’t support environmental efforts), people may see the charge as unfair and react negatively, undermining the benefits of the incentive.
Another consideration is the potential for surcharges to signal information about the people who violate them. Past research suggests that imposing surcharges on a behavior can stigmatize those who violate it. This potential consequence may be okay for certain behaviors, such as charging people for failing to behave in an environmentally friendly manner. However, employers should avoid incentivizing behaviors that may be out of one’s control or associated with marginalized populations—such as charging employees who are overweight or obese.
Ultimately, small incentives are tools that can be used to shape people’s behavior. Our research suggests that these tools can be very effective — not only in changing one-time behaviors, but also in shaping social norms.