Both/And: Values Based Decision Making in a Time of Crisis
By Xiomara Padamsee
Transforming core services to virtual overnight…bring your child to work EVERY day…sleepless worry for ourselves and our at-risk loved ones…even deeper divides along socio-economic and generational lines…amplified racism and xenophobia….How are we supposed to make the range of critical decisions required of us while swirling in the stress? Our brains have developed a response through biological evolution: pre-programmed shortcuts based on habits. But are the habits that we’ve built in the past representative of the leaders that we want to be today?
In times of stress, our brains naturally default to previously ingrained behaviors to navigate uncertainty. This includes existing habits around top-down, individualistic decision-making; information- (and thus power-) hoarding; and binary either/or thinking. In other words, unless we interrupt it, the extreme stress of today’s circumstances could lead many of us to default to white dominant culture habits in this exact moment when slow and intentional leadership, clear and transparent communication, and trust and relationship-informed decision making are most critical.
For me, embracing the “both/and” has been key. I have had to both surrender to lack of control in many areas of my life and bring into focus the key decisions that I must make each week. I’ve had to both find my most decisive inner leader and lean on those around me to help inform my thinking. In fact, my very north star for attempting to successfully lead Promise54 through this difficult time is, in and of itself, a both/and. Specifically, to get through this crisis, we’ll need to both continue creating our version of a radically human organization and protect our financial sustainability so that we still have a stable organization when this is all over. Both things must remain true, and so my leadership is smack dab in the middle of two, sometimes squarely competing priorities. This is the lane I’ve been working to find and remain in… and most days it feels like I’m white-knuckling at the wheel of a van driving down a lane built for a bike.
At the end of the day, I don’t know if what we’re doing at Promise54 is right or enough. What I do know is that I’m working through today’s uncertainties in imperfect ways right alongside other leaders and learning whatever I can along the way. What follows is a list of some of the recent moves we have made, how we made them, and why. Our hope is that this small offering of transparent sharing leads to less isolation and more connection so we can at least muddle through these difficult times in community with one another.
The week of March 2nd, after checking in with a number of my staff members on how they were feeling related to COVID-19 risks and travel, I grounded travel for all staff for the month despite the fact that we were hosting a number of live events. The notion of cancelling or reworking those to be virtual was daunting, but this decision felt clear because of the need to care for our team’s physical health and mitigate the perhaps less obvious risks of hidden inequities which could have resulted from a ‘personal choice’ oriented message around in-person work and travel.
The week of March 9th I cancelled our first-ever board retreat, which had already moved to virtual the week before. I felt like we needed to free up time and energy to care for our team — including many parents of school-aged and younger children in the first week of school closings. We are fortunate to have a deeply values-aligned board of amazing folks who are fully invested in our organization’s financial and relational health and who wouldn’t have wanted us focused anywhere else that week. We repurposed all staff time that week to just share our struggles along with how we were coping.
The week of March 16th, our leadership team worked together to make and share a series of fast decisions and small moves to both eliminate expenses and provide comfort to our team. We froze hiring for multiple open positions, paused an internal project that can wait until next fiscal year, grounded travel for April to allow our team to shift to proactive planning for virtual formats. Further, we loosened parameters on our existing “health and fitness subsidy” benefit which provides staff members with the opportunity to reimburse up to $500 each year for things like gym memberships and on our existing “coffee shop allowance” which enabled our staff to work from a coffee shop versus home by reimbursing the costs of food and drinks up to $100 each month. Effective immediately we made these into a “be well subsidy” and “coffee at home allowance” respectively so that staff could use them to help with the costs of anything they deem important to help them get through this time (child care, at-home yoga videos, grocery delivery fees, etc.)
Last week a subset of our leadership team did a line-by-line review of our budget, looking for expenses that can be minimized to insulate our organization from the challenges ahead, as well as a smaller set of funds that could be reallocated for staff support. We considered creating an “emergency fund” by setting aside a pool of money from which team members could request funds in specific increments if they are in need. Ultimately, we decided that making anyone articulate or justify being in need of financial help didn’t feel good (especially in the context of identity-based factors for our staff of color and staff from low-income backgrounds) so instead we implemented a small, one-time, mid-year COVID-support payment to all staff members in their next paychecks. We also implemented an immediate salary loan policy so that our folks can borrow against future earnings. And we engaged our full team to design alternative, flexible work arrangements — like an organization-wide pilot to condense meetings to certain days — to create added flexibility for all of our staff as they juggle new challenges like working virtually while caring for and/or homeschooling children, tending to parents emotionally, financially, and physically, and processing news of sick or dying loved ones.
Meanwhile, communications each week (via email updates, all-staff meetings, one-on-one check-ins, Slack updates, etc.) have included things like sharing the detailed rationale behind decisions and articulating our North Star for decision-making to our team. We reinforced our staff’s understanding of how to access the Employee Assistance Program, reminded them about therapy benefits through health plans, rearticulated our standard PTO and unlimited sick time policies (which include being able to use sick time to care for children in the event of school/day care closures due to a public health emergency), made sure folks knew what to do if they personally contracted the coronavirus, and ensured that our staff is fully aware of the new Extended FMLA and Emergency Sick Leave legislation.
So, there you have it…my attempts so far to interrupt lingering white dominant culture leadership habits by making batch decisions with intentionality, accessing lots of input from other folks to test thinking and add perspectives, while sharing our process honestly and transparently. And who knows, maybe in the midst of all these crisis-oriented changes we learn that our organizations can or should boldly rethink other habitual assumptions like top-down decision making and communications, a 9-5 schedule, five-day work weeks, remote work as the exception rather than the rule, or staff wellness as an afterthought versus a top priority. Because ultimately, whether we’re in times of crisis or not, we are best positioned to reach our organizational missions when our people can thrive.