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!

Exert Influence While You’re Stuck in the Middle

Are you stuck in the middle when it comes to your job?

Perhaps you supervise many, but you still answer to a few. Or maybe you frequently advise a superior who seems less competent than you. Leading from the middle is tough. But managers who influence from the middle are often in a perfect position to collaborate with others, solve problems, and have significant organizational impact.

Want to make the most of your time in the middle? Here are three ways to hone upward influence in this transitional season:

Honor Decisions You Disagree With

People who lead from the middle are sometimes forced to settle for less than the ideal.

In your position, often you’ll receive instructions you don’t like or decisions you disagree with. In frustrating moments, you may be tempted to badmouth the decision or the organization. In a meeting you may say something like, “I would have done it differently, but . . .” Or during office chit-chat, you may casually question your leader’s judgment.

Real leaders make the best of a situation and honor decisions in healthy, unifying ways. If you want to be respected by those around you, speak with integrity and uphold the reputation of others. This builds trust, which gives you more influence when it’s time to speak up or offer solutions.

Be Intentional

One challenge for mid-level employees is knowing when or how to speak.

When you are strategic and consistent in sharing, your perspective can make a more significant impact. What is the best way for you to communicate? Consider a short, weekly e-mail update to your boss. Highlight 2-minute success stories in meetings to put a face on your “win.” Or use printed presentation notes when sharing needs or asking for additional resources. This demonstrates thoughtful preparation and makes your request more memorable.

Keep the Big Picture in Mind

If you want to be taken seriously as a leader, take a serious interest in the organization as a whole.

Don’t just focus on your department. Instead, look for ways to lend a hand to those above, below, and around you. When your supervisor sees that you care about the whole company, you may be surprised how quickly your influence grows.

This may bring friction. Working from the middle gives you a great vantage point to see the big picture, to recognize patterns or uncertainties, and highlight tension within the organization. When you bump into turbulence, remember that trying to please everyone is impossible.

Global Portfolio Management Director Michelle Maloy, says it’s easy to doubt yourself when you’re always trying to please:

“[This balancing act] requires self-control and clarity. You need to have understanding and empathy for others, but you can’t let everybody’s ‘stuff’ allow you to lose focus.”

It’s All About Perspective

While there are times that leading from the middle is difficult, you are often ideally positioned to collaborate with others to generate new ideas and solve problems.

This allows you to gain experience, be involved in meaningful work, and affect large scale change. It is possible to successfully lead from your position while developing skills that serve you throughout your career.

How to Build Trust in Your Team

Once there was a businessman on a routine domestic flight.

Though a seasoned flyer, he felt tense when, shortly after takeoff, the pilot asked everyone to stay in their seats with belts fastened. Moments later the pilot announced there would be no beverage service due to unexpected turbulence. People looked worried, and soon some were shrieking with alarm as a storm bounced the plane erratically.

Nearby, the man saw a little girl sitting all alone, but acting totally calm. When the plane jolted she closed her eyes briefly but eventually started reading, looking out the window, or fiddling with toys until the shaking subsided.

After the flight, the girl waited quietly as others exited. When the man approached and asked how she could be so brave, she said:

“My dad is the pilot, and he is taking me home.”

Weather the Storms

Does your team trust that you are taking them home?

When the clouds form and turbulence comes, do your people trust you to guide them through? Building trust may not be on your regular “to do” list, but it can cement a foundation so you can build high and strong.

Here are five tips to increase trust in your workplace or family today:

1. Show your vulnerabilities.

Great leaders are connected leaders, and people relate more with your weaknesses than your strength.

To truly connect with people you serve, it’s important to share not just strengths and victories but struggles and setbacks. Admit your mistakes. Apologize. Be proactive about gathering negative feedback. And use your own errors to teach or encourage others.

2. Regularly delegate authority.

Give trust to get trust.

If you run a regular staff meeting, occasionally have others develop the agenda or lead the discussion. No one enjoys a micromanager who constantly takes credit or dominates others. Step back into the shadows and you will build a wealth of relational currency.

3. Be transparent about money.

Sharing financial information can be a huge boon to the bottom line.

However, a 2016 study found that only 25 percent of privately held companies were sharing financial information with all of their employees. Whether your firm is publicly-traded or privately-held, the time you spend explaining and talking about results will allow team members to feel they are a valuable, integral part of your circle. And it helps people understand how they can positively impact the financial performance of the business as a whole.

4. Operate from a visible set of values.

If your firm lacks clear values, define them.

Mount them on walls, design strategic symbols to communicate them, or put a face on them by sharing testimonies of team members who are living the values. People thrive when they have context for their work and its importance to the bigger picture.

5. Don’t let difficult issues linger.

When times get tough, the clock on your credibility starts ticking.

Don’t allow difficult situations to corner you – instead confront them head-on and get your team involved too. The formation of problem-solving groups can energize your staff and provide opportunities to reward creativity and individual contributions. Groups can be tasked with brainstorming strategies or exploring new models.

If your “difficult issue” is a person, be intentional about heading off conflicts immediately. Be hard on the problem and soft on the person. Be assertive but courteous, addressing specific complaints and providing clear expectations about the response and timeframe needed to resolve them.

Trust is built through daily interactions and intentional gestures. You have many opportunities to gain trust each day. Work hard in the small things and you’ll weather storms with confidence!