Simply defined, empathy is our desire and willingness to see as others see and to feel as they feel. Empathetic leaders feel genuine concern for others and are intrinsically motivated to help them thrive. While empathy is important at all times, in turbulent times like these – when fear runs high and uncertainty abounds – it is even more vital. If people don’t feel you care about them when the chips are down, they’ll know you don’t care any other time.
So what is leading with empathy really all about? I will let Simon Sinek explain this in his unique and inspiring way. Click HERE.
But let’s face it, empathy requires lots of hard work. Far easier and less onerous than to ‘climb into another’s skin’ is to pull up the emotional drawbridge and spare ourselves those vulnerable emotions. After all, one might argue, leaders have enough going on already without taking on the emotional whirlwinds blowing around them.Clearly some leaders do just that. They retreat to their heads – focus on the numbers, the data, cost-cutting and protecting the bottom line (along with their position). Of course, we need leaders to think rationally, act decisively and harness their full cognitive horsepower…..but we also need leaders who do not only lead from the head.
In the midst of such intense uncertainty, leaders need to be deeply connected to the emotional landscape of those in their ranks. Leaders who treat employees as real people with family’s just like their own, not costs on a balance sheet.
In any organisation, empathy can fluctuate across leaders and situations. Yet those at the top set the tone for everyone else. Empathy gets to the heart of what leadership is truly about – genuinely caring about people and wanting what’s best for them.
Those who have not done the inner work required to connect at the heart level may ridicule empathy. We’ve all met such people. Those who have cleverly managed up, climbed the ranks, but are concerned primarily with themselves – their pride, their position, their power – and relate to others not for who they are, but for what others can do for them.If you’re reading my article so far, I assume you aren’t one of these. As Albert Einstein once said, “empathy is not learned in school; it is cultivated over a lifetime.”
Hence, here are some pointers at how you can build and express greater empathy as a leader and a human being.
- Invest time understanding concerns, spoken and unspoken.
Being fully present for people can be profoundly impactful. So while the pressures of this time may drive you to be highly task-focused, make a point to take time to check in on how people are doing and then (the part people struggle with most), LISTEN– both to what they say and to their unspoken concerns. Creating the psychological safety needed for people to be truly honest is foundational to empathetic leadership. So no matter what they say, however uncomfortable it is for you to hear, ensure they never regret saying it.
- Be fully Human
The best leaders are those who can connect on a humble and human level. Sharing personal anecdotes from your own life of what you’re dealing with and how you’re managing yourself can help build rapport and make you more relatable. Sure sometimes the personal can seem trivial relative to the problems at hand. Share anyway. Add in some humor. Humanise yourself. The most personal is always the most general.
- Rally people behind a human-centred mission.
In the midst of adversity, people crave meaning; to know that their pain is not in vain but can serve a higher good. Empathetic leaders are attuned to this deep human need and rally people to pull together for a shared ‘mission critical’ that transcends ordinary silos, tensions and competing interests.Ask yourself, ‘What really lays at stake here?’Get crystal clear about why what you’re trying to achieve matters at a human level, not just a commercial one.
- Prioritise self-care and role model wellbeing
In the darkest days of the Second World War, Churchill often took an afternoon nap. Some scoffed at his disappearing acts, yet by prioritising his own energy management, he was able to bring his sharpest thinking to the crisis he faced. Blocking time in your schedule for self-care will send a loud message: prioritise what sets you up to play your A-game under pressure. Doing so will expand the bandwidth within your entire organisation to meet the challenges at hand. Burnt out employees make fewer good decisions and more short sighted ones.
- Promote connection and belonging
We perform at our best when we feel included and connected. Then casually “drop-in” to a few to say hello, see how people are doing or make a little light-hearted fun of yourself. Actions will speak far more loudly than any words when it comes to communicating how much you care.
6. Nurture hope, spread optimism
“We can and we will overcome this and thrive once again.”. A study by Gallup Organizstion of the major crises over the last century identified four core needs people look for leaders to meet: trust, compassion, stability and hope. Helping people maintain hope that better days lay ahead can lift flagging spirits and steel resolve to ‘keep faith and press on’ on the hardest days.Of course, this requires being grounded in hope and optimism yourself.
The greatest resource in any organisation is its people. The more people feel cared for, the more they care, and the more they contribute. Honing empathy skills through listening, perspective-taking and compassion not only leads to better outcomes in the midst of crisis, but fosters a “culture of courage” that elevates an organisation’s trajectory well into the future. Everyone understands tough decisions must made in a crisis. When we put the humanity of others at the heart of commercial decisions, it not only helps us make wiser ones, but builds collective trust, loyalty and engagement. So if you do nothing else today, take a few minutes to walk in someone else shoes. Your empathy may not change their situation, but by showing you genuinely care, you will change their experience of it.
People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.