The COVID-19 pandemic is transforming the world in many ways. Business and team leaders are transforming, too, adjusting their leadership approach to accommodate new concerns, challenges, and situations. Empathy is key, especially given how the pandemic is touching nearly every area of everyone’s lives.
For many, the immediate focus has been on health and safety, ensuring employees can work from home or work as safely as possible outside of the home. We have seen many businesses shift, such as restaurants and stores offering contactless delivery. But empathy from leaders now needs to encompass more than these basic but important considerations.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy is not only about relating to the way someone feels or being able to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. It goes deeper than that, to where an empathetic person is able to proactively consider what someone’s needs, feelings, and emotions could be. Part of empathy, the emotional aspect, includes being almost able to feel what you perceive the other person is feeling.
Without empathy, people run the risk of being detached and cold, which is certainly not ideal for leaders, especially during a crisis like COVID-19.
What Empathy Looks Like in Leaders
Employees are worried about things like workforce instability, childcare, and urgent needs. Mental health is a concern for many. All of these fall under the realm of what a leader should care about when it comes to their employees.
In the new, post-COVID work world, empathy means emotional support for employees and team members. Leaders should consider actions like:
- Promoting work-life balance as much as possible, including asking employees how they are handling issues like childcare or ill loved ones.
- Checking in with team members who live alone, offering a virtual connection.
- Encouraging the use of sick time, particularly, offering team members paid time off.
- Using various methods of communication and connection to ensure team members can seek help in the way they feel the most comfortable.
- Celebrating wins and happy moments, from virtual birthday parties to a kind email for a job well done.
It is also important to think about the reasons why an employee might be showing poor performance or having issues at work. In this pandemic situation, an employee may be going through some kind of distress that is causing performance issues. Before jumping to a punitive response, leaders should consider finding out more about the employee’s situation and how it can be helped, first.
All of these suggestions require trust from team members, and a good response from leaders. You can say that you want employees to come to you with issues all you want, but unless they think you truly care about what they are going through, and are willing to help, people won’t take the opportunity to seek help.
Why Empathy Matters
There are many reasons leaders should focus on empathy during these challenging times.
People who are stressed out, sick or scared are not going to be productive workers. When presented with empathy, however, the same people feel much more secure.
Studies show that empathy is amongst the most important leadership skills, if not the most important skill itself. When leaders are empathetic, staff are more loyal, feeling appreciated, and like their leaders are trustworthy and caring. They are also more engaged, because of how valued they feel. That is why celebrating wins is one of our suggested actions for empathy.
Empathy is also important when things are going poorly. In a workplace or team environment where people are blamed or shamed for failures, they will try to hide the failures or downplay them. That means there are never any lessons learned, and the failure may repeat again. But when leaders respond with empathy, people feel safe to fail or struggle, knowing that the first response will not be pointed fingers.
Even when employees are struggling, such as in the poor performance example we listed above, an empathetic response allows for room to fix the issue and become a better worker. Empathetic leaders will look for the root causes of issues and work to get an employee over that hurdle and on to better things.
In the case of COVID-19, employees and team members may be struggling for reasons beyond leadership’s control. However, simply being there as a kind, caring, and empathetic leader ensures that everyone can get through these struggles without being worried about the workplace as another big stressor.
Leaders create a better workplace by modeling empathy, during COVID-19 and beyond. It ensures staff gets along better with one another, and that eventually, the entire organization can cultivate a culture of empathy for each other.