By now, leaders will have focused their COVID-19 mitigation efforts on tangible operational aspects of their businesses. These may include being effective in crisis leadership and communication, protecting the business from short-term liquidity and profitability problems, as well as building foundations of growth for long-term recovery post-crisis. However, amidst the chaos, leaders risk losing sight of equally important intangible organizational qualities ─ especially their much-coveted organizational culture and values.
Organizational culture and values serve as default “behavioral codes” for how an organization works, and as such, are especially consequential during a crisis. Leaders under stress tend to switch to what Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman has termed “System 1” thinking ─ an instantaneous and instinct-driven form of decision-making. When organizations are forced to make various decisions at lightning speed, they rely on these behavioral codes while trying to generate efficient, triage responses.
Organizational culture and values hence form a guiding organizational “North Star” and are a source of strength towards navigate crises. Below, we outline how leaders can practically leverage organizational culture and values to overcome and ride COVID-19 shocks.
Leaders should reflect on whether their organizations have the appropriate culture and values to make high-quality decisions in an agile manner. Such decisions will speed up your organization’s ability to achieve post-crisis goals more quickly. We recommend that leaders observe the following best practices:
Allocate time to reflect on culture and values: Leaders often get caught up in completing tasks during a crisis. However, do not confuse time on task with speed to goals. The right organizational culture and values will help you accelerate your organization towards achieving goals post-crisis.
Reflect on the following questions:
Decide on organizational values and culture to highlight and to downplay: Arrive at agreed principles and values in dealing with the crisis with your leadership team. They may often have better visibility and insights on the “unwritten rules” within your organization. If you’re not sure where to start, we have partnered with Work & People Analytics to provide a quick assessment that provides both baseline data and a direction for the future.
Once leaders have identified the elements of their organizational culture and values that resonate most during the crisis, we recommend they highlight and assimilate them into their organizations through communication, deliberate action, and systems to support their inculcation.
Communication: Set the tone for your team on what to prioritize, along with corresponding trade-offs
Action: “Walk the talk” and model behavior that you would like to see in employees. Insist that your leadership team equally demonstrate the same behaviors.
System: Incentivize, incentivize, incentivize. Incentives can potently shape behavior.
Leaders will invariably need to do their part to alleviate the crisis before they can expect pre-crisis firm performance. As such, leaders should take the opportunity to engage external environments and frontline stakeholders to explicitly project their true organizational culture and values.
For instance, Google has leveraged its strength as a major internet advertising network to popularize advice on preventing the spread of COVID-19 to assist the World Health Organization (WHO) and over 100 government agencies worldwide. Coca Cola has deployed its distribution networks to deliver Personal Protective Equipment to frontline workers. Ferrari has directed its manufacturing prowess to develop ventilators. Based on their respective strengths, these companies have taken advantage of their unique capabilities to satisfy specific urgent needs during the pandemic.
Undeniably, balancing organizational culture with the bottom line will be challenging for some leaders. As a solution, anchoring financial objectives on long-term impact may help reconcile executive needs.
For instance, AirBnB has decided to provide USD250m in refunds to guests. While this may hurt their bottom line in the short-term, it truly reinforces AirBnB’s “Be a Host” culture – an asset built on hard-earned consumer trust. Remember: it can take 20 years to build a reputation, and only five minutes to ruin it.
While the COVID-19 outbreak presents existential challenges to organizations, it also equally presents opportunities for leaders to develop and demonstrate impactful organizational culture and values.
We recommend that leaders recognize that organizational culture plays a vital role in times of crisis by providing the default “behavioral code” for employees who are making important decisions.
Hence, leaders should allocate time to reflect on which aspects of their organizational culture and values they would like to highlight during the crisis; internalize them through constant communication, real action, and aligned incentive systems; as well as leverage them for competitive advantage externally to serve long-term interests.