Pride and the pandemic

My sister-in-law texted two photos to our extended family on March 31. One was of a sign installed on the lawn of the Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center, a 183-bed not-for-profit hospital in Woodbridge, Va. It read “HEROES WORK HERE” in big, colorful letters. The other was of my nephew, wearing scrubs, gloves, and goggles, in the entrance to the hospital’s emergency room, where he’s been working 12-hour shifts. We’re all worried about him. We’re also damn proud of him.

The daily stream of reports detailing the brave work of medical professionals around the world these past few weeks has been a revelation. Facing a virus without a cure and often working despite critical shortages of personal protective equipment, many of these people have been risking their lives simply by walking into work.

They aren’t the only ones working far from the comparative safety of home in this pandemic. Delivery people, warehouse workers, postal employees, supermarket clerks, gas station attendants, and many others are choosing to go to work. Facing layoffs, union members at General Electric’s aviation plants pressured the company to put them to work making ventilators.

Are they doing it for the money? I hope so, at least in part. But there’s also something else at play here — pride.

“An intrinsic feeling of pride based on the relentless pursuit of worthwhile endeavors is a lasting and powerful motivating force,” wrote Jon Katzenbach in his 2003 book, Why Pride Matters More Than Money. Katzenbach, a managing director with PwC US and founder of the Katzenbach Center at Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting practice, explored the institution-building capacity of pride and concluded that it is the “most important motivational element in a company.”

In an interview I conducted with Katzenbach when his book was published, he called out several wellsprings of employee pride: the products and services workers have a hand in creating, the reputation and heritage of their organizations, the people with whom they work, the respect of their managers, and the contributions they make to their communities. He advised leaders to become pride builders by continually tapping into all those wellsprings.

As I look at the picture of my nephew, it occurs to me that the ways in which leaders respond to this pandemic and the societal and business crises it has spawned can either create intrinsic pride among employees — or destroy it. In particular, the way in which leaders answer the following questions will reverberate within their companies and organizational cultures in the years ahead.

How will you treat employees? If there is one issue that will drive the needle on the institutional pride gauge up or down during this pandemic, it is how leaders deal with workforces that suddenly have little or no work to do. Some are using pay cuts to keep everyone employed; others are making no-layoff pledges. On March 26, as new weekly unemployment claims in the U.S. hit a staggering 3.3 million, Visa CEO Al Kelly announced that there would be no COVID-19-related layoffs at the company in 2020. “There is enough sadness in the world and already too many families [have been] impacted by job losses,” he wrote in a post on LinkedIn. “I have no interest in contributing to that.”

If layoffs become inevitable, leaders must be transparent and humane. In this regard, Bird, the electric scooter rental startup that attained unicorn status in 2018, serves as a cautionary tale. Bird’s 1,000 or so employees were working from home during the pandemic when 406 of them received a Zoom meeting invitation, titled “COVID-19 Update,” that did not include a host or participant list. On March 27, after five minutes of dead air, an unidentified female voice opened the audio-only meeting and reportedly said, “COVID-19 has also had a massive impact on our business, one that has forced our leadership team and our board of directors to make extremely difficult and painful decisions. One of those decisions is to eliminate a number of roles at the company. Unfortunately your role is impacted by this decision.” The meeting was over two minutes later. “It should go down as a poster child of how not to lay people off, especially at a time like this,” said one employee.

How will you operate your company? People who are working face-to-face with others during this pandemic have every reason to be proud. But it will be hard for them to feel that way if they are being forced to endure avoidable risks. We’ve already seen dramatic evidence of the demotivating force of this type of exposure among medical professionals, retail clerks, and warehouse workers.

‘There are many kinds of pride, but I think the kind of pride that you really want to build is based on the difference your company can make in people’s lives.’

Happily, there are also leaders who recognize the risks they are asking employees to take on by keeping the business open, and they are responding accordingly. Best Buy reduced store hours in early March and instituted contactless purchasing procedures later in the month. It also suspended some in-store services, as well as in-home installations and repairs. In announcing these changes, CEO Corie Barry wrote, “Right now, our role as a consumer electronics retailer is rapidly shifting, and we are striving to make the best decisions with two goals in mind: The first is to protect our customers, employees, and their families. The second is to do the best we can to serve the millions of Americans who are looking to us for increasingly vital technology tools to stay connected.”

How will you support the communities in which you do business? Just as my family is proud of my nephew, employees will take pride in working at organizations that help fight the pandemic. Even as many companies are navigating the collapse of their industries, there are lots of heartening examples of inspiring acts, including JetBlue’s announcement, on March 25, that it would provide free flights to help get medical professionals and supplies where they are most needed. The next day, when I mentioned it while interviewing Joel Peterson, JetBlue’s chairman, he said, “I am not at all surprised.”

“There are many kinds of pride, but I think the kind of pride that you really want to build is based on the difference your company can make in people’s lives,” he explained. “JetBlue employees have given a million hours to community service. After the TWA hotel at JFK opened, we flew in all our folks who’d given a certain number of hours and had this huge celebration. I asked people to come up on stage and talk about what they’d done. To talk about pride. I was with special people.”

Right now, company leaders are in the middle of the greatest pride-building opportunity of their careers. It has arrived amid tragedy, wrapped up in a kind of suffering and death that we’ll hopefully never see again. But it is an opportunity nonetheless.