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Compassionate leadership: The DNA of care

By Sashi Mukundan 

President, bp India and senior vice president, bp group

Leaders make a particularly powerful contribution to the culture of their organizations. What they focus on, what they reward, what they try to steer their teams away from, what they talk about - all send powerful messages to their people about what is valued in the organization. But in vulnerable times like these, teams look to their leaders to not just be their usual pillar of support, but also bring in compassion. 


As the current crisis continues to create uncertainty, fear and genuine concern for many businesses, people and societies, the need for more human, more purposeful conversations feels more important than ever. Honest conversations that connect at an intrinsically human level are absolutely crucial. Transparency and honesty are the currency of trust. It’s not easy. Those honest conversations need to be empathetic and humane, yet tough on some occasions. It’s a delicate balance that is required to create an organizational culture where seeking to help and selflessness is embedded in its DNA.


We’re living in a worried world

As our CEO Bernard Looney says, “Not everyone will get the virus – but every one of us is affected by it”. That’s so true. We’re all concerned about how the coronavirus will affect us and those we love. In addition to being a health crisis and an economic one, this is a humanitarian crisis which needs a human approach and response. The virus can even be said to have triggered a mental health crisis of sorts.


People are concerned about when they’ll next see their families, finances, job security, sometimes even the basics of life – like food and groceries. When you sum it all up – there’s a lot on people’s minds right now – sometimes too much.


All of this on top of an unprecedented crisis. On top of being confined to our homes. And all the while missing the things essential to our mental wellbeing – like going for a run, meeting friends for a chat, or the best of all – a simple hug. The national lockdown, necessary as it is; along with bringing daily life stresses, also brings a sense of isolation, loneliness, anxiety and a strong sense that all is not right with the world.


Time to reset

We must change the way we react and lead. In times such as these the most important part of a compassionate approach is identifying with people’s state of mind, acknowledgement and support. Acknowledge that our people may not be in the best frame of mind possible. Leaders are equally human and vulnerable! They too look for support in others. One must be grateful to one’s people for all that they are doing amid this difficult situation and show that gratitude too. Recognize and talk about the difficulties of the present time.


I cannot stress enough how important it is to simply be kind and not judge people for needing mental health support. We must bring mental health to the fore of this, make it mainstream. We’re all dealing with something right now, and it’s good to talk and it’s good to ask for help. That which was previously taboo, swept under the carpet and never discussed, must now be brought front and center if we are to keep our people safe and strong. 


We need to reset. As companies, as leaders – we need to be more generous and more human – this will surely help us tide over this crisis. 


So much to do

There’s so much that one can do to address the anxiousness that is endemic to the world today – protecting our own people through empathetic actions, supporting wider communities we work in or reaching out to help through our networks. 


Protecting our people: Small things matter. In fact, they matter so much more in the course of these stretched working from home days. Acknowledging that a team member may need flexibility to run down in the middle of a call because fresh vegetables get delivered to their building only once a week matter. Seeing more of people’s lives through a virtual setting, since kids, family or even pets are joining meetings matters. We are social beings. I do miss our face to face connect but video calls and digital technologies have been a lifesaver. I use them as much as possible! Even though we’re remote, yet in some ways, we’re more connected than we’ve ever been. So, let us be more sensitive to and aware of a team members state of mind, set clear goals, run brief and impactful meetings, and leverage individual and collective strengths of the team.


In addition to our people friendly policies and Covid-19 related health benefits, I’m proud that BP has not shied away from bringing up the massive need for mental health interventions. Our Chairman and CEO have

contributed a significant portion of their pay towards mental health organizations with the strong belief that it is the need of the hour. We have also offered Headspace, a meditation and well-being app aimed at reducing stress and anxiety across the organization and a 24/7 totally confidential counselling helpline system for those who may need it.


Supporting wider communities we work in: at BP we are committed to supporting our community through this pandemic; on both medical and social fronts. This is the time when our purpose and values as an organization come to life! In addition to providing relief to hospitals, we have reached PPE to frontline health workers, police force and refuse workers in key metros. Through our NGO partners we are also reaching food and rations to daily wage earners affected by the lockdown. We are supporting truckers and mechanics, whose livelihood has been impacted during this period of extended lockdown. Our employees have pitched in too, with voluntary contributions to top-up our support. 


So, as I said in my last post – we will certainly emerge very different from this pandemic than when we entered it. But during this phase, what differentiates a great leader is his or her ability to connect with people in a compassionate way and provide that extra comfort of knowing that the company is always there for them like a safety net. 


What will also be very different is the future of work as we know it. But that’s a topic for another day! 


We’re #InThisTogether


Views expressed here are personal.