The pandemic has made one thing clear to organizations: In times of crisis and brutal changes, many companies and their employees are in need of an emotional boost to cope and re-vive their efforts and ambitions. Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis has proven to be a burden to many, up to the point where people have lost optimism. That most employees today are experiencing a wide mix of emotions is clear, but feelings have a bad reputation in business because they are generally considered to complicate work relationships and decision-making. It is therefore no coincidence that the phrase “it’s not personal, it’s just business” is so often used when difficult decisions have to be made.
Emotions in the work place, however, are not all bad. In fact, emotions are part of work life, just as they are part of the experience of being human and therefore leadership should recognize employees’ affective states as realities they also have to work with. As a matter of fact, when it comes down to being an efficient leader, what matters is how we can deal with these emotions, and use them in creative and constructive ways. The latter is actually an important ability for leaders to acquire, as managing employees’ emotions is an important task when building the right work culture. Specifically, organizational cultures are not simply cognitive notions that are supposed to guide how employees should think and act. These cultures also represent shared emotional values and the feelings that employees during work hours express.
In times of crisis, the emotional underpinnings of an organization will surface easily and therefore need to be managed well by its leadership. Managing emotions are important to move a company forward and as such constitutes an important part of the vision that leaders communicate. By making use of this emotional route, leaders are effective in outlining a hopeful future and to energize their work force to follow the path of recovery as defined in their vision. As Napoleon Bonaparte said, “A leader is a dealer in hope.”
A recent example where the emotional undertone of the organizational culture is being tapped into to stay afloat concerns the Chinese telecom giant Huawei. The company, which was founded in Shenzhen in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, rose to global leadership when it surpassed then-world leader Ericsson in 2012 in terms of sales revenue and net profit (Tao, De Cremer, & Chunbo, 2017). Until 2020 the net revenue of Huawei kept growing, but in 2021 the financial consequences of the US sanctions have revealed itself. Specifically, Eric Xu Zhijun, Huawei’s rotating chairman, noted recently that these sanctions affected especially the company’s smartphone business by leading up to losses of US$30 billion a year. Furthermore, in the second financial quarter of 2021, Huawei reported a 38% decline in sales (Bloomberg, 2021). With the prospect of financial hardship and, as Eric Xu noted in April of this year, with no illusion that the US will lift the sanctions against the company, a grim and dark future seems to be lying ahead (Chen, 2021).
However, the spirit of the company does not seem to be harmed, but rather uplifted. Indeed, Ren Zhengfei has repeatedly noted that “there has been no chaos within the company,” “Instead, the company is now more united than ever, and has even attracted more talent.” As such, the company leadership clearly has been effective in keeping spirits positive and high. Ren Zhengfei primarily did so by announcing several times that Huawei does matter and can contribute significantly to the world by means of their innovation. At the same time, while emphasizing the positive impact that Huawei has had and will continue to have, he also made clear that the Huawei identity was being attacked, but that this threat would be averted by their sense of unity within the company. This kind of communication sustained employees’ sense of confidence and that hope could be seen at the horizon as the company would remain impactful and continue to make progress; which is a strategy that brings emotions to the fore with the aim to promote employee engagement (Lencioni, 2015).
The founder’s communication style that appealed to the feelings of the employees to sustain and further strengthen their commitment to the company has so far thus been successful in keeping people motivated, despite the financial set-backs. But, the leadership spark that has uplifted spirits by improving feelings of pride and hope was the release of Meng Wangzhou, who is the daughter of Ren Zhengfei and CFO of Huawei. She was arrested in December 2018 in Vancouver (on 24 September 2021, prosecutors in the New York federal court communicated that she would be released). An international warrant, issued by the US government, charged Meng and Huawei with bank and wire fraud in violation of American sanctions on Iran. The then-president Donald Trump did not only issue this international warrant, but also dragged especially the Chinese technology company into the trade war that he started with China, making that Huawei became blacklisted by many Western countries (De Cremer, 2020). Her return was a morale booster hardly ever seen at the corporate level.
What her return to China did was a few steps beyond Ren Zhengfei’s efforts, by eliciting a sense of companionate love within the company. Ren Zhengfei set the stage by bringing employees’ emotions to the surface in their battle with the US, but Meng’s return activated a degree of affection that companies only can appeal to in very rare situations. Companionate love has been defined as the degree of affection, caring, and compassion that employees feel and express toward one another. It is a deep emotional sense of commitment to the company where employees are careful about each other’s feelings, express compassion when things don’t go well and support and care about each other in such stressful moments. These emotional outbursts were indeed observed when Meng returned home as employees could be seen to be ecstatic, proud of their CFO, and hopeful that their resilience eventually will overcome everything. At this moment, Huawei employees clearly feel and believe that they belong to a special collective that takes care of each other and is united in their fight for a future where the company will grow again.
All of this makes clear that Meng Wanzhou has transformed herself into a beacon of hope and a capable leader who symbolically represents everything the company prides itself to be. Such leadership able to touch the deepest feelings of its employees creates a work culture where there will be less burnout, higher job satisfaction and commitment, and lower levels of absenteeism (Barsal & O’Neill, 2014). These are conditions that have been demonstrated to lead to better work performance, and ultimately higher productivity (Barsal & O’Neill, 2016). For Huawei this is the best outcome possible at the moment. Why? Many do not expect that with the release of Meng, the tensions between the two countries will suddenly disappear. In fact, it is likely that Huawei will continue to walk down a difficult road and suffer financial hardship (Hu, Deng, & Pan, 2021). If this is the case, then this rise of companionate love may be a much-needed solution for the company, as it will help them to survive over the longer term.
The presence of companionate love facilitates the condition where emotions are understood, accepted and experienced as mood boosters that will create the perfect conditions to perform in sustainable ways. Indeed, positive mood makes people almost 20% more productive and when it comes down to the sales department, this love-kind of work climate may even improve sales by 37% (Preston, 2017). And, especially relevant to Huawei’s situation, research also revealed that happy employees made the stock prices of Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work for” rise by 14% per year (based on data from 1998 to 2005; Preston, 2017).
With Huawei moving out of the smartphone business and applying their tech know-how to other industries (De Cremer, 2021), these numbers indicate that the emotion-inspiring leadership styles of Ren Zhengfei, and especially Meng Wanzhou, may well be the medicine that the doctor ordered for Huawei to succeed in their new business endeavours – almost regardless of whether US sanctions stay in place or not. As Meng Wanzhou noted when returning to work “Over the last three years, although we have struggled, we have overcome obstacles and our team has fought with more and more courage,” (Deng, 2021), as such making clear that their emotional strength and spirit will be an important engine for their survival strategy.
About the Author
David De Cremer is a Provost’s chair and professor in management and organizations at NUS Business School, National University of Singapore. He is the founder and director of the Centre on AI Technology for Humankind at NUS Business school. Before moving to NUS, he was the KPMG endowed chaired professor in management studies and current honorary fellow at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. He is named one of the World’s top 30 management gurus and speakers in 2020 by the organization GlobalGurus, one of the “2021 Thinkers50 Radar list of 30 next generation business thinkers”, nominated for the Thinkers 50 Digital Thinking Award (a bi-annual event that the Financial Times deemed the “Oscars of Management Thinking”), and included in the World Top 2% of scientists (published in 2020). His latest book is “Leadership by algorithm: Who leads and who follows in the AI era?”
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