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Industry Insights | 7 minute read

Why Empathy Is Vital For Effective Leadership, Especially In Times Of Crisis

August 4, 2020

Emotional intelligence is arguably one of the most important traits that leaders should possess. An integral part of this is the ability to have empathy and understand how others feel.

Leaders who truly understand their employees and provide what they need to succeed build long-lasting relationships. And because these relationships are based on trust and mutual respect, there’s greater collaboration and increased productivity. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on the role empathy plays in leadership — in governments and companies alike. One thing that’s become clear is that leaders who’ve shown empathy through this crisis have been the most effective. 

Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, is a great example. During the crisis, she’s held regular briefings, both formal and informal (the latter using Facebook Live). Her Facebook Live chats became popular among New Zealanders because they show that she’s human, just like us. She talked about her own concerns for her family, the science behind the government’s decisions and the difficulties lockdown brings. Ardern keeps her updates positive and inspiring and urges people to unite. And, most importantly, she listens to what people have to say.

Her approach seems to be working. At the time of this writing, New Zealand had reported a total of just 1,500 confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, while 22 people have sadly died. With a population of around 5 million, the low death rate is proof of the virus containment strategy. The nation had one of the most stringent lockdowns in the world, with playgrounds, beaches, schools and businesses all closed at one point. The decision to lock down so early, coupled with the way Ardern has shown empathy in her constant updates, has been praised by many. In fact, 87% of people there approved of the way the New Zealand government is responding to the pandemic, according to pollster Colmar Brunton

Why does empathy work? 

Organizations with leadership teams that lack empathy have high staff turnover rates. After all, who wants to work for a company that doesn’t understand how they feel and is unable to support their needs? Don’t just take my word for it: 82% of employees would consider leaving their job for a more empathetic organization, according to research from Businessolver, and 78% of employees would work longer hours for a more empathetic employer. The business case speaks for itself! 

Here are some considerations when incorporating empathy into the workplace: 

Communication is key. 

Communicate regularly, and during times of crisis, overcommunicate. Everyone will have had to adjust, so it’s important that in your role as a leader, you not only keep everyone up to date on what’s happening, but you also reach out to check in on them too. Be transparent in all your communications.

Listen without judgment. 

When I say l listen, I mean really listen to what your employees have to say. It’s easy to formulate a response as you’re listening to someone. Instead, wait until they’ve finished, and repeat back what they said to ensure you fully understand. Then respond. This not only shows them you listened, but also allows for confirmation of what they’ve said. You can then come up with a course of action that will help. Making a genuine effort to listen and respond based on what you’ve heard shows true empathy. Employees will feel respected and cared for. 

It’s OK to not be OK. 

Remind people it’s OK to have emotions and to lean on others when they need to. Mental health is important, and even more so during periods of uncertainty. Invest in mental health resources, and have mental health champions to start the conversation and encourage people to get help if they need it. The champions can also let organizations know which areas, if any, they need to improve and encourage healthy behaviors through workshops and training sessions. In short, it’s about normalizing mental health and showing compassion so people feel comfortable seeking help and advice when they need it. 

Lead by example. 

People look up to their leaders, and if you’re not afraid to show your emotions, they’ll do the same. They’ll match your openness. You need to practice what you preach when it comes to well-being. If your team sees you take breaks from work to take care of yourself, they’ll see it’s OK and follow suit. 

Encourage well-being. 

Well-being initiatives have an important role to play in helping people feel healthy, both physically and mentally. From virtual group yoga sessions to money management tips and retirement investment workshops, all these support systems can help. Well-being initiatives are important to employees, especially in turbulent times. That’s when people are most likely to seek resources. Regularly get feedback from employees to ensure you’re including things they find helpful.

Follow up. 

If someone has confided in you, follow up to see how they are. They might need more support but may be afraid to ask, and you may be able to make suggestions to move them toward resolving their stressors. If nothing else, people will appreciate that you’ve taken the time to check that they’re OK, and they’ll be more likely to seek help in the future. 

Be flexible. 

Flexibility is hugely important when it comes to leadership in a stressful time. Whether people have child care issues or need to care for ill family members, being flexible will show you care about the person and not just the impact the situation will have on the business. We’re all in this together and will come out stronger if we bond during this time. 

No one could have predicted the impact COVID-19 would have, but this crisis, like all that have gone before it, is temporary. Leading with empathy will help you and your teams get through this.

I, for one, have been reassuring my team and letting them know that although times are tough now, things will get better. While we don’t know when the crisis will end, it will end.

This blog post was originally published on the Forbes HR Council website.



About Kim Pope

Kim Pope is the chief operating officer at WilsonHCG, a global talent solutions leader that elevates the delivery of talent partnerships and transforms them into impactful business functions. A leader with an eye for innovation, Kim has played an influential role in the company’s double-digit growth through numerous acquisitions and funding from PE firms over the years. She is currently featured as an expert on the Forbes Human Resources Council and was named in SIA’s 40 under 40 list, a Tampa Bay Business Journal BusinessWoman of the Year honoree and SIA’s Global Power 150 Women in Staffing. Kim’s forward-looking perspective inspires her team to continually evolve the WilsonHCG brand and solution offerings.