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5 thoughts on business leadership, corporate social responsibility


While visiting the University of Iowa for our Fearless initiative, I sat down with Beth Livingston, who is an associate professor in management and entrepreneurship at the university’s Tippie College of Business. Here are a few takeaways for business leaders related to management strategy. 

Creating belonging is part of social responsibility.
Employees are often the most important marketers for a business, and whether people feel like they belong or not plays a big role in the messages they spread about their employers. There is not much that businesses can count on staying internal when it comes to workplace culture and DEI efforts in today’s day and age, where the ability to share on social media in addition to spreading opinions via word of mouth is easier than ever. Because of that, corporate social responsibility and DEI have to be much more than making philanthropic donations, Livingston said, and business strategy has to be people-focused and not just profit-focused. “What’s gotten a lot of these leaders ahead has been numbers,” she said. “They have forgotten that behind those numbers are people. And the pendulum has swung in a lot of these organizations where they want to know the stories behind the data points, not just the data points.”

It’s important for you to know as a manager what you can’t control. 
“If COVID has brought nothing else to light, it has been the fact that people are complex,” Livingston said. “Human beings [have] a complex psychology that cannot be predicted by algorithms – their behaviors, their thoughts, their actions.”

You can try to better understand it, but there will always be parts of human nature that we can’t predict. This “can be petrifying,” she said, but it can also be beautiful. 

“Where [leaders] get into trouble is they think they have control over things they don’t or they try to control things that they shouldn’t,” Livingston said. “And what has been the precipitating factor through these last 2½ years with COVID is people want to feel like they have more control over their lives.” 

Managers should not be fearful of giving up control; instead they should embrace it, she said.

Staff members listen to what you say, but they watch what you do. 
When leaders are respected, team members will listen to their perspectives. But they will also follow their example. If they work late, answer emails around the clock and never take vacation – it’s likely their team will act in the same way. Employees are smart, Livingston said, and they will notice if you say you value something, like flexibility, but don’t back that up with actions.

The worst thing a leader can do is violate expectations. 
Leaders don’t have to be perfect, but they should be authentic about doing what they say they will do. 

“Don’t set unrealistic expectations … [or live] in hypocrisy by saying things you aren’t going to actually do,” Livingston said. “Also communicate, and communicate your uncertainty.”

It’s OK to acknowledge that you don’t know what’s going to happen while still sharing what you are going to try to do, she said.

Focus on mechanisms, not policy.
In the conversations about workplace flexibility since COVID, managers have feared that employees would take advantage of it or not do their job to the best of their capacity, she said. 

Most people know what is expected of their job – building managers and assembly line workers know they cannot do their work at home just as professors have learned that some of their prep and research can be done remotely. So having strict requirements on how many days people need to be in the office doesn’t acknowledge that there are lots of ways to work and if an employee is the right fit for a job, they should be able to be trusted to get the work done in the way that is best for them.

Employees are not directly comparing their specific work situation to their co-workers’, she said. “What they’re saying is, ‘Do you treat me the same? Do you respect me? Do you trust me to do my job the same way?’”

She said focusing on the mechanism is more important than the policy. An example of a policy: Everyone should be on-site Mondays and Wednesdays, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays you can work from home. An example of a mechanism: Acknowledging that people need flexibility and creating guidelines that employees can adapt to their own habits and lifestyles.

“Remote work as a policy works because it makes people feel cared about and trusted,” Livingston said. Anything employers can do to help employees feel like they have control over their work will make them feel more valued.

Livingston has a book coming out soon relating to some of these topics, so stay tuned for future coverage from Fearless Editor Emily Kestel.

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