Today I attended an event discussing how crises affect trends. Most of the speakers agreed that crises accelerate pre-existing. One of the trends I see accelerating is the importance of trust at work. In the last several weeks I witnessed a client being ‘restructured’ out of the job, a neighbour laid off with no severance, and a friend being moved to reduced salary. Holding and witnessing these people going through their painful experiences, I had a powerful insight.

If you are a manager or business owner wondering why some of your employees do not appreciate your investment in their promotion, in the modern office facilities, or the perks you offer, this insight might be useful for you.

How we treat people when we communicate our business decisions matters. How we behave before and after that communication matters. How we take other business decisions matters too.

When we are not fully transparent, when we are not consistent, when we push responsibility for our decisions on our employees, a small, yet deep wound is inflicted.

Like small paper cuts, these wounds are not bad enough to cry murder, but they hurt. As I witnessed my client, my neighbour, and my friend process their feelings, I realized how these small cuts create longer-term problems.

Paper cuts take a long time to heal. As they do, they continue to remind your people that you don’t hold them as humans worth caring about. These cuts leave deep scars that for months and years will drain people’s commitment, motivation, and trust. Until one day you notice in front of you an empty-eyed shell of a human instead of the person you hired. No perks, promotions, or happy hours will impress or motivate them.

As we are plodding through the second month of the COVID-19 situation, more and more businesses start facing hard choices related to their people. My clients shared some of them:  Shall we lay people off? Should we cut salaries? Should we reduce hours?

These are not easy decisions, and they are laden with difficult emotions for everybody. People say, there is no good way of making such decisions…

There is. And all that is needed is a subtle and potent shift in your attitude.

Co-Active leaders hold people as naturally creative resourceful and whole.

In simple terms, it means that we treat people as fully capable, intelligent, and reasonable adults. People see the big picture, understand the basic economics of business, and notice transparency or lack thereof. My client, being relatively new to the organization, understood all along that the severance cost goes up with seniority. Yet, they were manipulated in questioning their capabilities. Before they lost their job, my neighbour knew that the company was going bankrupt. For the last several days they were being constantly yelled at by their boss. My friend manages clients’ invoices and knows exactly how much the company revenue was hit in the last month. And they had to sit in endless team meetings listening to managers preach team loyalty while accusing employees of not bringing enough value working from home.

People understand the logic behind business decisions. They sense your attitude towards them. American author and consultant Kim Scott coined the term Radical Candor, an approach to workplace communication aimed at balancing work-oriented challenge with genuine care for the person doing the work. When there is no care and no challenge there is hidden manipulation causing lots of small cuts (this is where my client has been). No change in performance and commitment is possible. When there is care but no challenge there is ruinous empathy. People are busy perfecting fake smiles while the business is stagnating (this is my friend’s situation). When there is a lot of challenge without care we have workplaces ruled by obnoxious aggression (my neighbor is still recovering from that). There are lots of empty-eyed bodies performing tasks as required while business urgently needs change.

When we combine direct challenge with genuine care for people, we hit the zone of radical candor.

With radical candor, we talk like humans dealing with real business. This is the zone of genuine commitment, where meaningful change happens. This is where your people stand by your decisions, even hard ones. And this is where, if people are let go, they leave with grace and gratitude.

This week I had a chance to witness leaders of a small business announcing headcount reduction with radical candor. People knew why, what, and when would be happening. Those who were let go were approached in advance and held gently. The rest of the team was informed with a heart-breaking vulnerability. People were given time and space to grieve the change. This organization lost some employees and gained a lot of advocates. And a smaller team on board is committed to transforming the business as needed.

A shift in attitude requires time and intention. As we struggle to survive the pandemic and to save our businesses, we might not see such a shift as a priority.

I know there will be a day in the future when we regret not doing it.

At the Leader in Chaos webinar series, that completes on Tuesday, May 12, we discuss this and other shifts in behavior that would serve as you lead in chaos.

And for the whole month of May, I will be talking more about practical steps leaders can take to keep their focus on people not tasks. For more information, register here.