Team Engagement in a Time of Crisis

Doubling down on business as usual is an understandable reaction in a crisis. Some see it as a noble way to weather the storm. The orchestra playing on the Titanic in the midst of chaos is celebrated, even legendary. We are told that leaders should act this way, even when it’s an irrational or excessively risky strategy, because… that’s what leaders do? 

Leaders provide strength, structure and strategy

Providing structure and being dependable and reliable is one of the unwritten benefits that responsible business owners and leaders often provide to their teams, especially in times of crisis or change. When all else fails, they pull together the team, cover shifts, keep the lights on, finish the job, and figure things out. The buck stops with them and they set the tone and culture for the organization.

But as the multiple crises unfolding around us today continue to get more intense, it’s getting harder to differentiate a leader’s steadfast stoicism from a ‘deer in headlights.’ The accelerating climate crisis, Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, #metoo, and now the COVID-19 pandemic have completely upended plans and assumptions that seemed safe as recently as 2016—which already feels like a different era. The way forward is not yet clear, but it will be anything but “business as usual.” Business leaders are expected to pivot business models and adapt workplace policies not only to survive, but to also be ‘on the right side of history’ as we see a social shake-up comparable to the end of apartheid in South Africa, or the civil rights movement of the 60s in the US. 

This moment calls us to meet one another not merely as units of labour, but as whole people.

There is a reckoning going on that calls on many businesses to make extremely challenging decisions—decisions that require employee engagement and asking for their help and input—and this may be an unfamiliar and unprecedented step for many owners. There are quite a few reasons why it feels hard to open a conversation about deep change, especially if that’s not usually the culture in your company. No company survives for long without dedicated staff, and getting the right help for yourself, your employees, and your business to have these conversations is worthwhile if you want to retain your staff, survive these crises, and emerge stronger.

From our point of view, it’s a baseline requirement, or ‘table stakes.’ that business owners, employers, and leaders have a baseline level of care and concern for their staff as whole people—not just as productive labour units. If that’s not your case, you probably already stopped reading so this sentence may be moot. 

Employee engagement in the workplace may feel, for some, like a relationship of mutual tolerance rather than a strong alliance towards a common cause. It’s easier to stay in everyone’s comfort zone when it comes to these hard conversations, but even the positive intentions to use your strength and resources to care for employees can contribute to short term gains but longer-term pains if you’re avoiding healthy conflict and not making space for “real talk” about the future. 

Routines and structure are very comforting. Part of the unfolding mental health toll of COVID-19 is that many people have exhausted their ‘surge capacity,’ and they need either respite or routine to overcome looming burnout. The second (or third) wave of COVID-19 is likely to be a crisis of mental health as people exhaust their resources and as support networks erode, while the future remains deeply unpredictable. 

If this speaks to you—a well-intentioned owner or manager, wanting the best for your team in the face of what feels like an impossible set of decisions—the first step is being willing to ask for help, and be seen by your team asking for help. This can be especially hard when you, as the leader, are the one that others look to for a consistent story about the plan, the next step, the way forward.

Change is now more complex than one person can understand

It is humbling and vulnerable, or may even feel like an admission that you have ‘lost the plot,’ to ask others to help you make sense of the implications of complex systemic changes that you don’t yet fully understand. Most people (including me) dislike being wrong and dislike not knowing what to do. This doesn’t always come from a place of ego; it also comes from wanting not to let others down when we support them by sharing our confidence and hope—and all the more so when hope and confidence are in short supply. And this cuts to the heart of the matter.

The pace and depth of change, today, is more than any one of us can comprehend.

The truth is this: the pace and complexity of societal and economic change is now so much that it’s well beyond what any one person can comprehend, no matter how brilliant a strategist they may be. We need to hear others’ stories and experiences and really empathize and understand their perspectives to know how to respond appropriately. This is true at a personal level and also in a business context. 

There is an important balance to strike in team conversations about how to emerge stronger from these crises. On the one hand, we must slow down, creating safety for sharing, and take the time to really listen—to openly and honestly engage others with experiences really different from our own, in an appreciative way. Only this leads to understanding if and how our previous stories or actions may be implicated in harm or suffering caused, or harm or suffering ignored, or hearing hard truths about what is and isn’t going to work. These conversations cannot be shoehorned into a 30-minute stand-up over the lunch hour! On the other hand, we have to do something, and this demand for immediate action is ever more urgent. It’s not sufficient to “strike a committee to look into the issue” that will report back in a year. 

Earlier this year we wrote a set of case studies describing some of the specific ways that six successful Certified B Corporations took their first steps towards meaningful employee engagement—download the PDF here.

We help our clients to balance these demands and create the right space for making decisions and plans. At this time, we are already engaged with several organizations undergoing major shifts in strategy, and helping them engage their staff in the conversation about what comes next. Junxion’s TurningPoint planning approach is grounded in three fundamental principles:

  • Collaboration, which we define as cooperation across departments or organizations.
  • Consilience, which is the purposeful collision of distinct ideas from different schools of thought.
  • Connectedness—the friendships and collegiality so essential to productive work and creative thinking.

Being strong for the people we care about is important to us and to the clients we work with. Caring for people, ultimately, means that we accept the ever-more-obvious truth that nobody is truly separate—we are all parts of an indivisible connected whole. We may all be in different boats, but we’re in the same storm, and we can’t protect ourselves by cutting others off. 

Collaboration is the only safe and winning strategy.

Collaboration is the only safe and winning strategy. Caring for people means caring for all people, not just your own in-group. 

Being strong means clearly identifying the power you have and how you use it. To acknowledge our power (not deny it or ‘pass the buck’ to stay neutral, or some ideologically pure moral high ground), to be accountable for how we use our power, and to be transparent and explicit about to whom we are, or ought to be, accountable. 

If this sounds like the way you’d like to approach strategic planning with your team, please contact us to start an inspiring conversation.


Garth Yule advises organizations on values, vision, social purpose and impact strategy. To find out more about working on your business, reach him at [email protected] to book a call.

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