Leading with Empathy During Uncertain Times

COVID-19 is officially a pandemic, and millions of Americans are working at home.

Even if you aren’t sick, you feel the impact of this pandemic. As the coronavirus has spread across the globe, the CDC has made drastic recommendations on social distancing, self-quarantines, and statewide “stay at home” mandates.

Through this unprecedented season, what are some of the best ways to navigate your professional challenges?

“I Feel Your Pain”

Empathy is one of the best starting points.

Defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” empathy allows you to comprehend what another person is experiencing or to put yourself in their position.

Empathy is the ability to perceive a situation from another person’s frame of reference, and possibly to experience the emotions that go with that. Empathy is different from just “being kind” because empathy is a powerful tool that allows you to truly understand points of view that are vastly different than yours. A person leading with empathy is more aware of overworked employees, overtaxed customers, or solutions that another person may overlook.

The benefits of empathy are huge. A recent nursing study showed that nurse managers who were perceived as empathetic could boost vitality and thriving environments in their teams. Empathetic leaders can communicate better with employees and customers, build bridges of trust, and can facilitate optimal employee performance and compliance. And this brings exponential gain: organizations with engaged employees have higher productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction, and loyalty.

Empathy in leadership can manifest in many ways with regard to the coronavirus response. Here are just three:

1. Be Calm

During any crisis, people need their leaders to remain calm and to empathize with their thoughts or feelings.

While you may not share the emotions of your customers or employees, it’s ok to acknowledge feelings of anxiety or stress. When possible, share resources that promote facts, not fear (like information from the World Health Organization or the Center for Disease Control), in order to help people intellectually interpret the outbreak.

2. Be Flexible

With many people working from home (with kids in tow!), some employees may struggle.

Leaders should be considerate of missed deadlines, unforeseen health emergencies, and emotions bubbling near the surface. Remember, things are not “business as usual,” and special times require special considerations. Above all, flexible managers are consistently leading AND responding. Simply directing employees to available support resources can make a huge difference.

3. Be Available

Not everyone is empathetic by nature, so this is a great time to check your own heart.

Examine yourself daily and ask: Am I really listening? Am I taking in others’ points of view? Ask for feedback from people you trust or solicit comments through neutral channels. Or set up work-from-home chats where people can share tips, information, advice, or inspiration as everyone adjusts to a new normal.

Natural routines can also go a long way toward building confidence – consider morning huddles, or regular conference call “office hours” to offer an open door for people in their most vulnerable moments.

Be Positive and Proactive

Still not sure how to show grace?

Perhaps the best strategy is to change your perspective. Instead of prioritizing outcomes or objectives, use this time to focus on your own leadership. Ideally, you should be a coach, a therapist, a sounding board, and a support system to your employees. Allow people to chat candidly and comically, and make room for a few failures.

Create margin during this roller coaster, and everyone will benefit!

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