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Empathy in Uncertain Times

Empathy in Uncertain Times

Jun 11, 2020

By: Catherine Saar 

Perhaps the need for empathy has never been greater. Leading a team can be challenging in the best of circumstances. And now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, a renewed sense of urgency to address racial injustice and working virtually, leaders are being called to reimagine and reinvent their approach to leadership daily.

How can leaders at all levels of an organization help their teams to shift and pivot in times of great uncertainty? The answer seems to lie in being exceedingly human and in taking care of the people you work with. As author Simon Sinek says about leaders, “You’re not in charge, you’re responsible for those in your charge.”

When I consult leadership literature on leading well, empathy emerges as a key skill for creating collaboration and for leading organizational change even when we are not in crisis mode. Empathy helps us to understand what other people feel, and it enables us to see things from their point of view. Armed with those insights, leaders can better sense not only what needs to be communicated, but also how to communicate. Empathy helps us to develop connection, which in turn, engenders the trust that enables us to move forward safely together.

While communicating frequently is always important, doing so during times of crisis is especially critical. When people are isolated, over-communication is more important than ever. As leaders, we must stay in touch and invite in our humanity, which previously was much easier to put aside or to ignore.

This quote from Patrick Lencioni says a great deal about what is called for now: “What you should avoid is seeming cold or impersonal in the name of “business as usual,” or being absent or inconsistent in the name of “giving people space,” or being afraid to try something new. These unprecedented times call for you to stretch beyond your normal comfort zones and be even more vulnerable than usual. Six months from now, you’ll look back and be glad you did.”

In short, it is incumbent upon leaders to acknowledge the challenges and fears our teams are facing as the earth continues to shift beneath our feet, while also acknowledging that we too, are human first.

Some simple ideas to support empathic leadership:

  • Prioritize Listening. Listen more than you speak; listen to the whole person, and to the meanings behind their words.
  • Avoid Giving Unsolicited Advice. Be willing to engage from a place of openness and genuine interest. Suspend judgement and simply be there to hear and understand the issues and concerns of another person without trying to “fix” it for them, or to change their mind. Brene Brown has an excellent and entertaining video that illustrates beautifully what empathy is, and what it is not.
  • Offer Support. It is not enough to simply acknowledge your team’s concerns. As leaders, we need to assure that the team has access to the resources they need to accomplish what is being asked of them. We must partner with them to find the best solutions in compassionate and thoughtful ways. Timelines may need to relax a bit to avoid creating more stress in an already stressful time. Giving individuals time to cope with personal challenges can go a long way toward building trust, creating a sense of ease and helping them to feel energized and productive.

Last but not least, leaders must remember to pause for self-empathy and self-care. We are stressed too, and we need to treat ourselves with gentleness and understanding. It’s like the airplane metaphor; In order to help others, you must put on your oxygen mask first. So, please remember to listen to how you are feeling, to recognize that it’s not your job to fix everything and everybody, and to reach out for support when you need it. In short, be kind to yourself. The world needs committed, thoughtful leaders, perhaps now more than ever.