How Business Leaders Can Best Respond to the Rise of Populism

Populism reflects worry about the economy and sagging faith in political institutions. Insightful business leaders will respond by offering stability and purpose.

learn more about Stephen Fussell

By Stephen Fussell

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When today makes its way into history books, or is recounted by those who lived it, what will the headline be? How will the story start?

Will anyone, at any point, reflect on this period in time as "the good ol' days"?

You can't read international headlines today without touching on the ups and downs of a volatile global economy, terrorism, failing security measures, unemployment, inflation or the growing disparity in both income and opportunity.

These issues and others have contributed to the rise of populism, as people feel they don't have control over their futures. We've seen this manifested in increasingly extreme political platforms around the world and in recent decisions, by popular vote, such as Britain's decision to exit the European Union.

This is not something any business leader -- from manager to CEO -- should write off or discount. The nature of the human spirit, the nature of governments and the nature of markets profoundly impact the work that we all do. The rise of populism tells us that employees are unhappy with aspects of government and markets. That uneasiness inevitably impacts their work. It also means that they will be asking for more from us, and for different things.

They will increasingly look to the workplace as a place for stability, security and transparency.

By rising up to help meet some of these basic, intrinsic human needs, business leaders lay a platform from which people can build mastery, independence -- and self-actualization. And this, in turn, enables them to live up to their fullest potential. That's not only good for them, it's good for business.

Related: Why Making Your Employees Happy Will Help Your Bottom Line

Here are a few ways businesses can help employees realize their greatest potential by being a beacon of hope -- a safe place -- in a chaotic world:

1. Be a stabilizer.

While the vision for our political and economic futures may be murky, we can provide our people with a clear vision of what it will take to grow our companies, and their careers. We should be advertising this corporate vision -- both short-term and long-term -- openly and often, so our teams and employees can align their goals.

We can also be an anchor of stability by creating opportunities by investing in our employees. This might mean we need to create new sorts of innovative jobs and retrain people. It's a fact for all of us that we won't retain 100 percent of our employees for life, but if we invest in them, we're going to retain more than most. And for those we don't, we're making their lives a little better, too, by getting them ready for the jobs of tomorrow -- and likely gaining a lifelong advocate, if not a lifelong employee.

Related: The CEO's Checklist for Keeping Employees Happy and Fulfilled

By making employees' skills more sustainable, you further your company's ability to grow sustainably, too.

2. Offer security.

Security is a physical need, but also a financial and mental one.

People want to live today, and know they'll be able to retire someday, without fretting finances -- Abbott offers a pension and a 401(k) among other financial benefits to its employees to address this.

They also want to feel secure in their jobs. Employees should feel safe to ask for a flexible work schedule if they so choose. They should know they won't be implicitly punished for taking a few extra weeks off for maternity or paternity leave.

Managers should be their employees' principal advocate, offering continuous feedback to help their team members succeed, not once-a-year performance reviews, and making an effort to connect with employees in person as often as possible. This helps people feel safe to innovate, throw out new ideas -- and even to fail every once in a while.

Related: 5 Ways to Make Your Employees Happier and More Productive

Businesses need to offer a mix of formal benefits and a culture of open communication to make security at the workplace a reality. Which brings me to my next point:

3. Build aquariums, not hidden libraries.

With 40 percent of the world's population under the age of 24, the people we work beside more than ever have grown up with -- and expect -- connectivity and transparency both at home and at work.

Our employees will connect with each other one way or another, but whether it's us that connects them -- or all these forces we can't control -- is up to us as business leaders.

We can connect them via networking events, mentoring programs and intriguing, relevant content on our internal company websites. We can speak to employees with the sort of open language we'd use with any highly respected colleague. And on a micro-level, we can encourage managers to form authentic relationships instead of transactional ones.

In a world where so many people are disillusioned by so much, let's help those who work for us be happy when they put their feet on the ground each morning to head into the office or out into the field.

And maybe, just maybe, one day they'll look back and reflect on today as "the good ol' days."

Stephen Fussell

Executive Vice President, Human Resources at Abbott

Stephen Fussell heads HR at Abbott, a global healthcare company with 74,000 employees in 150 countries. Fussell has overseen Abbott’s transformation to a more consumer-oriented organization with about two-thirds of its workforce located in emerging markets and has led the workforce through more than a dozen major deals on four continents. He is an expert in talent strategy during M&A, spin-offs and divestitures as well as innovative training and development strategies.

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