Last updated: 28 December 2021
The past couple of years have been extremely challenging for most organizations.
COVID-19 has forced many employees to work from home where possible.
Others have had to carry on because homeworking was impractical.
And everyone from the ground up experienced higher levels of stress, due mainly to the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic.
As another Christmas season approaches, the virus is still with us.
So what can companies do to help their employees cope?
One of the best gifts they could give them would be the gift of empathy in leadership.
In his keynote speech Understanding Empathy, Simon Sinek notes that leaders are so preoccupied with their status that they forget their real job.
According to Sinek, being a leader is not about being in charge.
It’s about taking care of the people in your charge.
But a Paychex survey indicates that in most organizations, leaders are failing to do that.
Team morale is so low that more than 50% of U.S. workers are looking to change jobs.
So what are their leaders missing?
Why are a few companies thriving, with happy, motivated employees, while others are filled with disgruntled, stressed, and burned-out workers?
The Need For Empathy In The Workplace
The truth is that leadership is a skill that anyone can learn.
But companies don’t train their people how to be leaders.
They give them training for everything else as they work their way up the ladder.
Once they become leaders, however, it’s assumed they know how to lead.
Many do not, and that’s why they end up micromanaging.
The only training they have is doing the job they’ve just left, which they’ve often learned over many years.
An article on the Forbes website points out that empathy involves creating a psychologically safe environment in which employees feel able to discuss any problems they might be having, whether they’re professional problems or personal ones.
It’s all about improving staff members’ sense of well-being, giving them the desire and incentive to do their work to the best of their ability.
The article goes on to list 3 actions leaders can take to help their employees get to that stage:
1. By showing gratitude and appreciation for their work and efforts
2. By sharing a similar experience the leader may have faced
3. By getting the team member any help or support required
Empathic leadership has been shown to lead to a more productive workforce.
In fact, teams working in an environment with empathic leadership perform 27% better than their non-empathic counterparts.
Of course, not everyone wants to be a leader.
Why? Because being a leader comes at a price.
Leaders are not in charge, they’re responsible for the employees in their charge.
That means that when things go well, the team members get most of the credit.
When things go wrong, the leaders get the blame.
But there’s more to empathic leadership than just being responsible.
Empathy Through Communication
Writing for forbes.com, businesswoman Kim Pope highlights statistics in empathy research from Businessolver.
They found that more than 82% of employees would prefer to work for a more empathetic employer, while over 75% said they would work longer hours for a more empathetic company.
That makes sense. Who wants to work for an organization that doesn’t know or care about how they feel and that doesn’t try to meet their needs?
Empathy is all about communication, especially in times of crisis. Here are several tips on how to keep the lines of communication open.
Listen carefully to what people say
Wait until they finish speaking, and then repeat back what they’ve said. This shows that you are genuinely interested and that you’ve heard them clearly.
It also helps you grasp the issue more concretely because you’ve had to say it out loud.
Encourage discussions on mental health
Let people know it’s okay to express emotions and to talk about mental health issues. If mental health is normalized then it becomes easier for everyone to seek help and get the help they need, including leaders.
Offer resources for overall well-being
Physical and mental health are equally important. Initiatives and workshops can provide advice and give employees resources that will help them feel valued and cared for.
Check in regularly
Follow up with staff members to see how they are doing. It may be that they need more support but are afraid to ask, in which case you’ll be in a position to offer further suggestions.
Be as flexible as possible
You never know what might be going on in people’s lives. They might have childcare issues or need to care for an elderly relative. The more accommodating you can be, the better.
You need to assure your staff team that you’re all in the same boat. If you work together to solve your problems, you’ll come out stronger on the other side.
Empathy Through Support Strategies
Empathic leadership involves creating the right environment for employees to flourish.
Simon Sinek relates the story of one man who held two different jobs. One job he absolutely loved, and the other he hated.
When asked why he loved the first job, he said it was because managers were constantly asking how he was doing and if there was anything he needed to do his job better.
It wasn’t just his immediate line manager but any manager from any team. This made him feel wanted, like they cared about his welfare and were keen for him to do well.
What about the other job?
That was a different kettle of fish entirely. In his second job, the managers were always checking up on him, trying to catch him making mistakes.
The atmosphere was tense and it was all he could do to get through the day, which he could only manage by thinking about the subsequent paycheck.
Ironically, businesses are always trying to fill their staff teams with the “right people.” But according to Sinek, the people are not the problem.
The problem is with the leadership.
Instead of firing someone for doing a less than adequate job, it makes more sense to offer that person extra support.
Especially if the organization has already spent time and money training them.
Fire that employee, and a huge investment goes down the drain. Give them enough support to help them overcome their obstacles, and everybody wins.
That support can be in the form of extra training, seminars, mentoring or any of a number of other alternatives.
Leaders can’t be expected to have all the answers, so it would make sense for them to partner with human resources to take advantage of the organization’s available assets.
If you can provide the resources your staff need to succeed, then they will succeed. In the process, you’ll end up developing strong and lasting relationships based on trust and respect.
And that will inevitably lead to closer collaboration and enhanced productivity.
Empathy In Everyday Business Situations
Empathy doesn’t mean feeling sorry for someone. That’s sympathy.
So what does empathy look like in a typical business environment?
Imagine your manager walks into your workspace and tells you that sales have been low for the third quarter in a row. Unless you do something to improve the numbers, your place in the company’s future can’t be guaranteed.
How would that make you feel? It isn’t an inspiring speech meant to motivate you to do better. It’s a threat.
It’s not going to incentivize you to work harder because it’s creating a culture of blame. If anything, it only serves to make you fearful and even more stressed than ever.
On the other hand, suppose your team leader enters your workspace with the same piece of information. Sales are down again. But instead of threatening you, they take a different approach.
They say they’re worried about you and want to know if anything’s wrong, at work or elsewhere. They ask if you need help or extra resources to bring things back on track.
That is showing empathic leadership, being concerned about the person and not merely focused on their output.
Think about the person with two jobs above, one he loved and the other he hated. In the hated job, there’s no way that he would feel safe enough to admit that he didn’t know what he was doing.
There’s no way that he would admit to making a mistake, even if he hadn’t been properly trained.
He would be too scared of the consequences, the most extreme of which might be losing his job. So what does he do?
He keeps it to himself. He doesn’t ask for help or extra training because he knows that will make him look weak and inefficient. It will also make him a target in the next round of redundancies.
Scenarios like this help explain why some companies have high turnover rates. New research is predicting what they’re calling a “turnover tsunami.”
It suggests that once the pandemic ends, as many as 25% of workers in North America are planning to quit their existing jobs. That’s going to throw a stream of organizations into a state of chaos and uncertainty.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Remember, the problem is not with the people, it’s with the leadership.
And empathic leadership is the only way to guarantee a happy, loyal and motivated staff team.
How To Increase Your Empathic Leadership Skills
According to an article on Center for Creative Leadership, there are 4 steps leaders can take to show more empathy towards their staff teams:
Look out for signs of burnout
These are stressful times and people in many organizations are having to work harder than ever. Check in with your staff members regularly to make sure they’re coping with their workload and their work/life balance.
Find out about your team members’ needs and goals
Try to match each person with the kind of tasks that best suit their style. This helps keep them engaged and motivated.
Remember that your workers are people first
They might have problems outside work that are holding them back. Create an atmosphere where they feel able to share whatever is going on in any part of their life.
Offer support and compassion where needed
Many people have experienced personal loss, especially during the pandemic. Let them know that you understand and are available to listen whenever they need to talk.
Conclusion & Key Takeaways
The COVID-19 virus has created high levels of uncertainty amongst companies worldwide.
There’s so much stress in the workplace that many employees are considering changing their jobs as soon as the pandemic ends.
According to Simon Sinek, the problem is not with the employees but with their leaders.
Leadership is not about being in charge, but about being responsible for the people in your charge.
Fortunately, leadership is a skill that anyone can learn, but few organizations train their people on how to be a leader.
The most successful companies thrive because they make use of empathic leadership.
That’s where leaders create an environment where their staff teams can flourish, where they’re able to discuss any problems and get all the support they need.
To help workers succeed, leaders should aim to:
- Show gratitude for their work and efforts
- Share their own similar experiences
- Provide support, help and resources
Empathy is all about keeping the lines of communication open, especially in times of crisis, by:
- Listening carefully to what people say
- Encouraging discussions on mental health
- Offer resources for overall well-being
- Checking in regularly
- Being as flexible and accommodating as possible
If you can provide the resources your staff need to succeed, then they will succeed.
Empathic leadership involves being concerned about the person and not merely focused on their output.
Research suggests that businesses are heading for a “turnover tsunami” with 25% of workers in North America planning to quit their existing jobs once the pandemic ends.
To stop that from happening, leaders need to take a more empathic approach by trying to:
- Look out for signs of staff burnout
- Find out about team members’ needs and goals
- Create a safe atmosphere for sharing
- Offer support and compassion where needed