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Monday, January 18, 2021

Strength in Vulnerability: What 2020 taught us about effective leadership in the workplace

In a few weeks time, we will have experienced a year of coronavirus restrictions and, as a result, many people are facing long term damage to their mental and physical health.

Almost half (45%) of the UK population have felt anxious in the past two weeks, and research suggests that physical activity levels have decreased by 30% due to the COVID-19 lockdowns. During this public health crisis, organisations, no matter their size and industry, should be focusing on supporting their employees through these challenging times. Business leaders are having to think and operate in new ways, re-orienting their HR processes to prioritise employees’ primary needs, like safety and security. Right now actions are speaking louder than words, and by providing real care and empathy, HR leaders can help make the lives of their team members better, building a respectful and community-driven workplace in the process. At the beginning of 2021, we want to recognise some of the most effective ways that companies have shown care, compassion and their own vulnerability to support their employees during the pandemic.

Vulnerability in leadership


The COVID-19 crisis has changed what it means to be a leader, stripping leadership requirements back to the most fundamental element: having a positive impact on people’s lives and working towards a common goal. Studies have shown that compassionate leaders perform better and foster more loyalty and engagement within their teams, and this compassion only becomes more critical during a crisis. While the instinct of many team leaders might be to stay calm and exhibit control, it’s just as important to recognise and express their own fears and anxieties in order to help employees manage similar emotions. It’s never easy to show vulnerability, especially in a workplace setting, but failing to address collective fears and trauma can take a toll on the stress and anxiety levels of the entire organisation.

According to Dr Brené Brown, an acclaimed author and researcher, showing vulnerability is not a weakness, but an act of courage that can give leaders and their teams a newfound strength. Brown explains thatVulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”; her research of over 13,000 individual experiences did not find a single example where an act of courage was not underpinned by vulnerability.

Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change” - Dr Brené Brown

Leaning into vulnerability and being honest about the business’ and leadership’s circumstances is the best way to demonstrate to employees and customers that a brand is human, strengthening their trust. When times get tough, approaching any business situation with honesty, transparency, and vulnerability will build a foundation for a positive brand sentiment. 

Employers expressing compassion in crisis


Brands like Hilton and Airbnb, who’ve shared their vulnerability during the pandemic, have been able to boost both engagement and equity. Airbnb faced a difficult challenge when their profits plummeted in light of travel bans, forcing them to reduce their staff by 25%. Rather than avoiding addressing the subject and keeping the reductions quiet, CEO Brian Chesky sent an open, honest statement about the changes to all employees, as well as posting it on their website. The statement addressed the crisis, how the business was dealing with the situation, why they decided to reduce staff, what the process would look like, and how they were going to support departing staff. While this was an upsetting situation for their team, this example of extreme transparency and vulnerability showed that Airbnb were taking ownership of a tough decision and showing compassion and care for their employees. Their vulnerability, as well as their generous severance packages and ongoing job support to those who lost their job, earned them praise and respect within their industry.


Global hotel brand Hilton also saw their profits suffer due to the huge decrease in travel, leading them to furlough tens of thousands of their employees. Rather than leaving their employees high and dry throughout the furlough period, Hilton partnered with companies including Amazon, CVS Health, Walgreens, Albertsons, and Lidl, to help find temporary work for their qualified employees. Chris Nassetta, Hilton President and CEO, said, “When we learned other leading companies were stepping up hiring to meet pandemic-related demand, Hilton was eager to partner with them to provide expedited access to opportunities for our team members.” By taking decisive action to help their employees, Hilton showed vulnerability and took accountability. Others examples include PepsiCo, who increased pay for their frontline workers and introduced paid caregiving benefits for parents and carers, and Ally Financial, a US firm who gave employees a $1,200 tax-free financial assistance payment and access to free virtual mental health counselling throughout the pandemic.

Impact on employees


It’s clear that a ‘business as usual’ approach does not work in the event of a global crisis. Employers and HR teams have to adapt their approach to address the issues the business is facing if they want the respect and trust of their employees. Employees who say their organisations have responded particularly well to the COVID-19 crisis are four times more likely to be engaged at work and six times more likely to report a positive state of well-being than those who are dissatisfied. 

Going forward, employers have to be aware of how anxiety can manifest in their employees. Data from the ONS shows that more than one in three (37%) people in the UK now have high anxiety, compared with 19% towards the end of 2019. By showing vulnerability, business leaders can help to ‘normalise’ anxiety by reassuring their teams that feeling anxious is a normal and valid reaction to these abnormal circumstances. Managers should also encourage their employees to communicate openly with their peers, share coping strategies, and ask each other how they’re feeling, holistically rather than just business as usual. 

Many business leaders have taken control of tumultuous collective atmospheres by firstly addressing uncertainty and the impact of the disruption transparently and secondly and crucially, by turning inward to understand their own, human emotion first to identify how to support their employees while opening themselves up to the empathy of others. This takes a lot of courage and vulnerability, but creates a support network within the organisation that promotes mutual acceptance and strength. Workplaces can then channel this shared energy into reimagining the business after a pandemic that has completely changed how we see the workplace. 


Join us on 17th February for our HR Leaders Road Table Event “Leadership Lessons from Vulnerability” where we will be reflecting on the lessons learnt from a tumultuous 12 months with HR experts in Diversity and inclusion, wellbeing and internal communications. 


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