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Conscious Capitalism at Work: How to Walk a Mile in Your Employees’ Shoes

Leaders can truly support their employees by trying to understand the nuances of circumstances that might be quite different from their own. Here are a few ways to let your team members know you're listening.

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What happens to the world’s greatest hairdresser when people are afraid to go to the salon? What about the chef whose restaurant was forced to close due to the coronavirus pandemic? Their skills, like those of so many other workers, are less in demand now. Their financial health is in jeopardy, and they may not be able to rely on the government for help. Fewer jobs are available, the nature of those still exist has changed, and going to work or looking for a job are both health risks.

The silver lining of the pandemic is supposed to be that working from home is the new normal, but this is only true for a certain segment of society. White-collar workers can comfortably and safely stay home, but living in this bubble makes it easy to lose touch with how others must sacrifice in the new economy. Though it’s unintentional, companies that offer work-from-home options further expose this class divide.

Until we take a good look at our roles in this division, we’ll keep furthering this divide and become sicker as a society. Pretending the problem doesn’t exist — or that we’re powerless to do anything about it — only feeds this toxicity. Leadership is now being challenged to think deeply about the lives of hourly workers, but understanding is only the first step. Those same leaders can then start to have a positive impact on the lives of employees whose circumstances are deteriorating because of the pandemic.

Addressing the Issues Employees Face with Compassion

Many of us have been raised to believe that hard work is always rewarded. That mindset makes it easy to think the inverse is true: that a lack of reward is due to a poor work ethic. We quickly — sometimes subconsciously — jump to conclusions when we see others struggling financially. If you know someone can’t pay their bills, but you see them with a Starbucks latte in their hand, you might immediately assume they make poor spending choices.

It’s rare for our thoughts to automatically consider the possibility that someone gave them a gift card or treated them to coffee — or that it’s the single nice thing they do for themselves once a week to feel human. In the same vein, we don’t often consider how our good fortune has affected our success; nor do we think about how a lack of the same luck and opportunity might impact others’ lives and make it impossible to succeed.

This lack of awareness makes it difficult for us to hear about or face the financial challenges that our employees endure. It makes for difficult conversations, but we’d be wise to have them. The process begins with listening and understanding the nuances of our employees’ lives amid circumstances far different from our own. Show employees that you’re listening and that you are trying to understand by following these steps:

1. Listen without an agenda.

We have to listen to our workforce to understand the circumstances we don’t experience. This requires setting our judgments aside and listening without a company-related agenda. Listen with the sincere intent to understand; don’t start by offering any assistance, and don’t provide a lecture on how you think employees should live their lives.

Create an avenue of communication where everyone feels comfortable expressing their differences. Focus on relating to these differences by asking open-ended questions: Are we listening to everyone? Is there harmony between employees? What stressors are common or being aggravated by the pandemic? Are any employees showing signs of distress or unwellness?

2. Let go of the belief that everyone gets their due.

Listening without judgment is extremely challenging if you believe that everyone’s situation is their own doing. Start by acknowledging that fortune has favored your success — the class or family you inherited, relationships that fueled your momentum, and opportunities that others never had.

As your viewpoint broadens, you’ll see how the belief that hard work is always rewarded has led to an “us versus them” mentality where there’s not much room left for mutual growth or appreciation. When you’re no longer limited by that belief, you can acknowledge that some people have worked incredibly hard only to receive little to no reward. Only then can you become the opportunity that helps fuel the success of your employees.

3. Get comfortable talking about money.

Our unhealthy avoidance of money discussions has propelled toxic judgments about money and financial wellness. Our discomfort with these conversations also acts against the goals of our purpose-driven organizations. We want employees to do well financially so they feel safer and happier, which positively impacts their productivity and loyalty to the company. To help everyone succeed financially, we need to have potentially uncomfortable conversations.

Most importantly, learn about the specific ways that our financial system in America excludes some employees from participating in the economy they’ve helped to create. For example, life-saving loans often include steep interest rates and fees that spiral people into debt that can set them back for years or longer. You could offer employees earned wage access to help them use their own money to pay bills on time without fees, penalties, and predatory loans — or you could provide bonuses when they hit their goals.

4. Behave like a B Corp or practice Conscious Capitalism.

If you haven’t adopted a framework such as B Corporation or Conscious Capitalism — and the behavior to match — now is the time to do so. Prioritize greater thoughtfulness and intentionality as part of your goal to improve the lives of those touched by your business. In particular, focus on those on the front lines who ultimately ensure your sustainability.

Then, define your company’s role in society. No purpose-driven organization operates in a bubble, and your success is interdependent with the success of your stakeholders — including the communities in which you operate. There’s an unspoken social contract between your business and these communities, and articulating that relationship will improve your engagement with them and with your workforce.

Purpose-driven organizations that take care of their stakeholders — especially their employees — see huge dividends. Happier workers who are more financially secure are also more engaged, more productive, more connected to the company, and more innovative in their contributions to the bottom line. They also contribute to their communities in ways that reflect positively on their employers, positioning those companies for even greater success.

In their book “The Healing Organization,” Raj Sisodia and Michael Gelb wrote: “More than wars, murders, and terrorists, our work is killing us. The human cost of ‘business as usual’ has become unacceptably high. We are sophisticated at cost accounting; we know every expense down to the penny, but we don’t even try to measure human suffering. Instead, we just say, ‘Thank God it’s Friday,’ because work for many of us is an ordeal to be survived.”

Isn’t it about time we shifted work from an ordeal to be survived to an opportunity to thrive — for everyone?

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