Empathetic leadership will shape the new world

24 June 2020 by Heidi Marshall

If ever there were a time to show empathy at work, it’s now. The ‘collective trauma’ that we’re experiencing means employees need to feel understood and cared for if they are to give of their best.

This is undoubtedly a difficult time to be a people manager. Through coaching conversations with hundreds of new and experienced managers every week over the past few months, we know that those with people management responsibilities are being challenged on a daily basis to nurture their teams in difficult circumstances. For the most part, they are having to do this remotely.

From sympathy to empathy

It’s important to know the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is about feeling sorry or pity for someone else’s situation; not an uncommon sentiment in the current climate. Empathy, however, is about wanting to and being able to understand the feelings being experienced by someone else.

Empathy, like most strengths, comes more naturally to some than others. The positive news is that with some practical guidance, all managers and leaders can take steps to proactively build empathy with their teams and help them navigate their work life at this uncertain time.

Empathy as a core leadership skill

Psychologist Daniel Goleman has long been an advocate for empathy as a core competency of leadership. His views are supported by countless leadership studies and are echoed by the World Economic Forum which claims ‘Creativity and empathy will be as important as AI in the jobs of the future.’ (Davos, January 2020)

Goleman describes three versions of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy (a natural curiosity that enables us to see the world through someone else’s eyes)
  • Emotional empathy (tuning into someone else’s feelings through verbal and non-verbal cues)
  • Empathic concern (when someone expresses concern, or care, for someone else)

He suggests that highly effective, empathetic leaders are able to demonstrate elements of each of the three versions. Understanding a team member’s situation and picking up on how they are feeling enables the manager to communicate appropriately and provide the right support to suit the employee’s needs. The result is a healthy, trusting relationship. Only with trust will the team be able to bounce back from challenging situations and perform at its best.

How can today’s leaders focus on building empathy?

In so many cases during the crisis, hardships encountered by employees – childcare pressures, shared home workspace, family illness, isolation, financial worries – have an impact on work life, yet cannot be solved by a line manager. You may not be able to fix everything, but with empathy, you can make your team member feel better.

1. Create a safe psychological space for a meaningful, open conversation. In practice, this means building trust with your employee and reassuring them that you are here to help. To encourage open dialogue, it’s important to get their permission for the discussion ahead. ‘I’m happy to have a chat with you and to work through it with you. Are you open to that conversation?’

2. Listen. Being curious about what’s going on for your team member beyond their day-to-day workload is the first step. Be conscious of how you are listening – applying the same rules remotely as you would face-to-face. For example, used video where possible so that you can have eye contact and look for visual clues as to how they are feeling. Don’t be tempted to multi-task; give the conversation your full attention. Listen to their voice and be aware of any changes in behaviour or attitude that can help you build a picture of what is going on for them. Much like mindfulness techniques, it’s about being fully present.

3. ‘Play back’ to them what you have heard to make sure you have interpreted the situation correctly. Try to imagine being in their shoes and think about the situation from their perspective. If you are struggling, ask questions until you are confident that you have connected with their feelings. Don’t be tempted to jump straight to finding a solution.

4. Acknowledge their pain or challenge. Even with the best intentions, people often make light of others’ difficult situations, using phrases such as ‘well at least …’ to try to make the problem seem smaller. It could be that the conversation is making you as a manager feel uncomfortable and helpless, but being empathetic means you avoid turning the situation to being about you and your own feelings.

5. Allow them to build awareness of their emotions. When dealing with stressful situations it’s important to be able to feel; and feeling is a key part of resilience. Empathetic leadership offers a safe space – where constant positivity isn’t a pre-requisite to being a good team player. Where it’s ok to talk about how you are feeling and why. Be aware of the emotions, name them, and don’t hastily react to them.

6. Be aware of your own behaviours and how you are helping or exacerbating the situation for your team member. Your new awareness of their personal context will allow you to get fresh insight into how your actions are impacting them. Show your empathy through genuine acknowledgements such as, ‘I can’t imagine how you feel right now with all that going on’ or ‘I’m here for you.’ Think about what you can control; the ways in which you can help. Perhaps you can’t take away the risk of redundancy, but you can help someone complete a course or get short-term exposure to a new skill.

7. Take a long-term view of your role as an empathetic manager. Taking the current situation, it’s unlikely that you will have been able to offer your employee a quick fix. Schedule regular check-ins, building on what you already know about their challenges. Keep listening, keep cultivating trust, and keep offering help where you know it will make a difference.

Managers shouldn’t underestimate the impact they can have by showing empathy. Rather than it being overwhelming, especially with complex challenges and when you have a number of team members, it can help you to feel like you are supporting in the right way, at the right time. Empathy is a change of mindset. It reduces the risk of making bad decisions based on inaccurate assumptions that others’ needs, values and experiences are the same as yours.

By treating people as individuals and understanding what makes them tick, helps them to be the best version of themselves – even when times are tough.

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