Why pandemic-era leadership must move from resilience to empathy
Seeking resilience may be common in most crises, but when it is a pandemic of this scale, care and empathy are what sustain employees and help them ride out the storm.
At the start of 2020, few could have predicted the year would see:
- One of the biggest-ever pandemics
- Almost 255 million full-time jobs being lost
- Frozen or reduced pay and hiring due to significant falls in revenues
Those who still had jobs were not all that lucky – organizational expectations of resilience led to unprecedented stress and survivors’ guilt, often leading to burnouts. The smallest of errors sent hearts racing in the fear of a pink slip!
The crisis is landscape-altering.
Human beings are wired to connect with each other, with our mirror neurons firing not just when we experience emotion but when others do too! The resultant response to the emotional state of those around us can be seen in, for instance, visceral reactions to crying babies or other experiences causing distress or disturbance.
The pandemic then is the very definition of collective trauma – everyone is simultaneously deeply distressed or disturbed. A simple question from HR leaders on how employees are feeling could leave people scrambling for answers. From economic activity to daily lives to health, the wide-ranging impact could shake even the most resilient employees.
The collective psyche bears the colors of fear, uncertainty, and worry, with not one person free from wondering about the implications and the possible future course of action. This is the time for HR leaders to demonstrate compassion and empathy, as dealing with the unfolding human tragedy tops all other priorities.
There is immense pressure on employers and employees.
In this time of turbulence, not just employers but the most engaged employees too face incredible performance pressure. The pandemic has forced a rather sudden conversion to telework, the workforce is disconnected and socially isolated, and personal priorities and family health issues jostle for the mind- and schedule-space. This complexity of the workplace success quandary pushes up stress levels greatly.
Look at these numbers:
The right leadership response is imperative.
When it is business as usual, employee engagement and team loyalty are simpler with a high-performing, compassionate leader. In a crisis, however, compassion and empathy become even more critical, despite the immediate tendency to focus on building resilience first. HR leadership must tune into personal anxieties and fears, helping colleagues and employees handle their own reactions.
‘Command and control’ can scarcely be the fallback response. Success in this period hangs on employees with concentration, focus, and perseverance, not alienation, low creativity, and poor motivation. Imagine the plight of an employee getting an earful for a missed deadline when unknown to all, her husband and child were ill with COVID back at home.
This is a back-to-the-basics phase for leadership – the chief goal is to make a positive difference in the lives of people. Business demands and needs cannot reign supreme forever, and additional pay and one-time bonuses will just not cut it. 2020 required resilience; 2021 is a call for empathy.
How important is empathy?
Very. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Development Dimensions International have in separate reports placed empathy atop the list of competencies and skills required of leaders.
A leader who takes interest in the dreams and passion of workforce members gets true appreciation and a tribe of highly engaged employees. The contributions of the latter are bound to be exceptional, as a result.
It is equally easy and ill-advised to let this slip by. Workplace attitudes toward coworkers tend to be very transactional, driven by declining employment tenures, a stressful work environment, and terse communication. Physical wellness is not the only wellness that matters; leaders must build wellness into the professional journeys of their employees. The times are of grief, loss, and lockdowns, and HR leaders need to be empathetic toward the workforce.
Empathy is not all that abstract. People need to know the leadership understands them and cares for how they feel. A curious and patient leader who is a good listener with an open mind and heart is not a stretch – after all, the leader too will be going through similar circumstances.
Leadership must support employees.
For employees looking to alleviate stress and manage work-life balance expectations, social support and leadership with understanding are key. Leaders can achieve this in two ways:
- Emotional support: Employees must know they are cared for and can freely discuss work and non-work roadblocks they encounter.
- Role modeling: Supervisors must demonstrate the right ways to integrate work and life obligations along with self-care in a crisis.
Employees essentially want to be assured their experience is normal, and that they are not going crazy! Empathetic listening is immensely useful in this regard – it calms the nervous system and lowers traumatic responses.
A leader with empathy caters to the needs of the team, understands and plans for its development needs, embraces diversity and fosters unity, and stays on top of political and social currents in the organization. By positively impacting loyalty, morale, productivity, and tenure, this, in turn, unlocks shareholder value through resolved gridlocks and stalemates.
How can one become an empathetic leader?
Effort and patience are what it takes to build the skill of empathy. It requires listening to others and expanding the frame of reference. It goes beyond merely hearing out a concern, requiring instead to listen deeper to underlying concerns. The following qualities can help leaders find the right compassionate voice:
- Being aware of happenings within and outside of the self
- Confronting unfolding events and lowering the guard
- Empathizing with the emotions of others
- Showing genuine care for individuals and groups
Step up for employees!
It is time for the organization to step up for its people. Here are the specific steps to take:
- Self-assess: The leader must understand what (s)he brings to the table and accordingly molds team actions.
- Boost morale and give ownership: Employees may wonder what they bring to the table in such times, and it is important to shape their confidence and attitude to make them comfortable in their roles.
- Create engagement and learning: An excellent employee experience triples the likelihood of high employee engagement and nearly doubles that of financially outperforming industry peers.
- Enhance workforce wellbeing: Ignore this at the cost of a significant hit in terms of soft dollar costs of poor mental health.
- Deputize and coach: This offers support to the manager through guidance on non-verbal cues and suitable actions.
The last word…
Compassion, empathy, humility, and vulnerability are not mere epithets for poster boards or leadership texts. Maneuvering successfully through the pandemic requires a definitive change in leadership styles in sync with workforce needs. It is only an empathetic leader who can adjust the approach in line with changes and shifts, and prepare for the future with a healthy and productive workforce!