4 minute read

Taking a People First approach to leadership

Just 38% of people believe that business is doing well at putting people before profits. But the COVID-19 pandemic has shown a focus on short-term profit maximisation is no longer sustainable. Leaders who succeed will put employees right at the centre of business. 10Eighty's Joan O'Connor outlines what it takes to become a 'People First'  leader

10Eighty helps individuals to maximise their potential and helps organisations to harness that potential. We are experts in developing leadership capability and helping organisations increase employee engagement

Taking a People First approach to leadership

A people-centred approach to leadership takes account of the physical, emotional and psychological needs of individuals in order that they can do their best work. As an essential part of your business, the needs of those you employ and those you work with must be one of your biggest considerations.

Do the right thing

“We’ve amended our sick pay policy and allowed complete flexibility for caring”
Katy Snell, head of people at Emerald Global (CIPD video #HRtogether)

The pandemic has exposed many underlying structural, societal and institutional inequalities. Organisations are beginning to grasp that a focus on short-term profit maximisation is no longer sustainable. Putting people first, whether customers, suppliers or employees, is becoming an increasingly important element of business strategy. Businesses that want to be in the best shape post-lockdown should not under-estimate the importance of socially responsible behaviours. Reputational damage will hamper those perceived to have behaved badly towards employees, suppliers and society during the pandemic. Socially aware consumers will boycott firms that did not treat employees and customers fairly.

“We will remember the companies who stepped up to care for their employees and customers and we’ll remember those who abused their employees.” said Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain, not someone I would usually quote.

However, there is a long way to go. The recent Edelman Trust Barometer notes that just 38% of people believe that business is doing well or very well at putting people before profits.

Leadership in lockdown

I believe that leaders need to focus on creating meaning and purpose and how to motivate and create an environment conducive to employee physical and mental wellbeing. This requires them to be employee-centred, with a holistic approach to people and work.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, no one could have predicted the scale at which it would affect us. The impact has hit some organisations harder than others. Those that have navigated these turbulent waters most effectively have done so by demonstrating quick thinking and an ability to act decisively with effective communication as a priority. They have communicated with clarity, empathy and honesty, considering the employee perspective at all times.

What makes a real difference is authentic leadership, bringing our whole selves to work and showing vulnerabilities, sharing experiences, being open and being transparent about challenges and difficulties. 

Prioritise people

“People care so deeply about the mission you have to keep reminding them they shouldn’t just be ploughing on.”
Martyn Dicker, director of people at UNICEF UK (CIPD video #HRtogether)

Making people your priority will build trust, confidence and commitment. A people-centred leader understands the importance of individuals’ wellbeing, physical and mental, to organisational success. They know that they have a responsibility to create the conditions that allow employees to thrive, and are actively involved in doing so by taking proactive steps, such as:

● focusing on what is best for employees and put this at the heart of people strategies

● trusting your people to do what’s best, giving them autonomy, responsibility and accountability

● building skills to support complex and flexible working

● working on your ability to lead remotely

● reviewing how you measure organisational and individual performance

● building skills in wellbeing, mental health and resilience for yourself and your employees

supporting employees’ whole life, helping them to achieve the personal/work blend that is right for their circumstances

Work and wellbeing

“We’ve encouraged employees to take time during work to call someone or do a good deed like shopping for a vulnerable person; and we’ve put mental health at the top of our agenda”
Alicia Bedford, HR executive at Cambridge Commodities (CIPD video #HRtogether)

Successive lockdowns have been increasingly hard to cope with. Now more than ever we are reminded of the need to pay attention to what motivates different individuals, and to find ways to accommodate this into our working patterns.

Employees working from home have good days and bad days and are without the support and back-up of the office infrastructure, the social support of their colleagues and the light relief of the watercooler moment.

We need to adapt to deal with the pressures that many are feeling and take steps to help employees adjust to cope better, especially as it seems now we are in this for the long run. An effective approach relies upon ensuring we listen to employees and actively seek feedback and encouraging openness and candour in order to support remote workers in the balance between work and home life.

Zoom fatigue

Psychologist Dr Doreen Dodgen-Magee sees video-calling as being an essential but contentious part of our lives. “As social animals, we fail to thrive when we can’t have meaningful connections with others, so video-calling is really important at the moment for helping us feel part of a community.”

That said, leaders need to address the difficulties of communicating via video for a prolonged timescale. Zoom fatigue is becoming a problem for some.

We have changed our way of working, but the longer this has continued it appears that some people are not doing the check-in calls and conversations with colleagues because they have had enough of being on work-focused video calls for the majority of the day.

To combat Zoom fatigue, we can do more to encourage team members to find alternative ways to connect. For example, have more walking meetings. Taking the phone to the park for instance is a less sedentary and intense way of engaging than a video call. Also encourage them to protect some time in order to make the most of the time away from calls, to be productive and creative. Cut out unnecessary video calls and use a shared platform where the team can communicate and collaborate.

Reassess and reset

We have seen how volatile and uncertain the world can be and now appreciate the potential for a sustainable reset of the workplace. Our human capital strategies need to be more reflective of the way we work now, taking account of both the benefits and constraints.

Leaders in all sectors have had to pause, reassess, and reformulate strategies and plans to cope with the turbulent times ahead but this affords an opportunity to improve how we hire, manage and retain employees.

In the long-term impact we will see more flexibility in where and when people work, and this is a change to be welcomed; it will enable a new narrative of energy, talent and innovation. More autonomy will be facilitated by the digital transformation we see in our working and personal lives, which makes it easier for employees to work in a way that suits them best. It will also encourage people to take ownership of their learning and development, to develop the skills needed in this new world.

What will make all the difference is to remember that regardless of our working environment, we need leaders who can reach out and maintain working relationships and trust in the organisation.

Published 10 February 2021
Enjoyed this story?
Sign up for our newsletter here.