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Empathy: The Human Approach To Leadership

Great leaders look for opportunities during chaos, they see moves as they are happening, not when it’s revealed to the world

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

– Dale Carnegie

Trust is built of five components but it’s empathy that gets you into the door. It’s reliability, competency, integrity and vulnerability that keeps you there. Leadership is ultimately about others. Leaders inspire, they motivate, they care, they provide hope. They are exceptional storytellers with the ability to convey ideas and facts that are compelling and inspiring. Empathy is the foundation of those actions.

The world is filled with bosses leading companies, but not enough leaders. A boss has power over others. A leader on the other hand is a beacon of positivity, inspires others through their action and words, rallying them with a clear vision and purpose. Great leaders look for opportunities during chaos, they see moves as they are happening, not when it’s revealed to the world. They know how to turn crisis management into a sense of shared purpose that betters the organisation in the long term.

This crisis is one of the biggest challenges any leader will face in his or her career. To pull us through these extraordinary and unstable conditions we need leaders who are decisive and with a steady resolve. A decisive leader builds an organisation’s confidence, inspires and motivates teams to search for solutions to the myriad of challenges it faces. Leaders must make critical decisions under constant pressure. To navigate through this jungle of confusion, leaders will have to adapt different leadership styles and management practices at various stages of the crisis but right now leaders need to adopt a participative style, one with empathy at its core. 

Empathy is a leadership competency, not a weakness. There is no playbook for a pandemic. The coronavirus continues to claim lives, infections ongoing, and the impact on the P&L significant. Companies are reducing spending, freezing hiring, suspending raises and promotions, and even retrenching staff. The long-term implications are hard to predict.  

This is a challenging time for all of us. In this time of unfamiliarity and rapidly evolving landscape, leaders must connect and get involved in understanding the anxiety and challenges their employees are facing. Stress and anxiety affect the way employees work and act. Level-headed employees may suddenly seem worried, exhausted and lost. Teams that use to meet deadlines and are known for their quality work may be distracted and unproductive. As employees are more isolated now than ever, leaders should recognise the risks that work-related stress can pose. 

Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Leadership in Turbulent Times chronicles the stories of four great US presidents – Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Some of the questions she explores are – how does adversity affect the growth of leadership? And how, at moments of great challenge, are leaders able to summon their talents to improve the lives of others? 

Her conclusion – though these leaders came from different backgrounds, had different abilities and temperament, they were all guided by a sense of moral purpose and a deep-seated authenticity. It was purpose and authenticity that gave them the ability to lead through times of discord and fear.

“Authenticity is the alignment of head, mouth, heart, and feet – thinking, saying, feeling, and doing the same thing – consistently. This builds trust, and followers love leaders they can trust.” 

– Lance Secretan

Authentic leadership means being genuine, not some time, but all the time. It requires a high level of self-awareness and emotional intelligence. It starts with empathy and vulnerability as leaders inspire and influence by revealing a little about themselves. Authenticity leads to stronger bonds, which in turn enhances performance and a leader’s effectiveness. These qualities are crucial in ensuring engagement and building trust.

You can’t build a team, inspire followers nor elicit loyalty without authenticity and empathy. It means understanding the needs of others, being aware of their feelings, and how it impacts their perception. People will pull through if they know they are not facing their fears alone.  Leaders need to show that they are human beings, someone who cares and understands. 

“A leader is a dealer in hope.” 

– Napoleon Bonaparte

The social and economic costs of this crisis is real. Jobs and livelihoods are at stake. We are all overwhelmed by our own anxieties. As the working world adapts to a new normal, its far-reaching implications and uncertainty, leads to stressed and anxious employees needing strong leadership. To navigate through these turbulent times, leaders should be mindful, kinder and respectful of the burden and challenges faced by their employees, and should step up and communicate with honesty. 

This is not business as usual but we will succeed. Leaders must be honest about the impact of the virus on the financial health of the organisation, about specific strategies to survive the economic downturn, remove doubt and dispel fears. 

Communicating in a straightforward and transparent manner helps people understand and better accept the realities. Tough news delivered right is more stabilising than misleading communication, which often leaves people assuming the worst. Focus should not just be about specific sales, assignments or projects that the employees have been tasked with, their psychological well-being is equally important if not more. 

Communication should be frequent and spontaneous, especially now when remote working is a norm, leaving people more isolated. The longer an employee is disconnected from his leader, and his colleagues, the worse the results. Leaders must check in on their people, as much as possible, and do it one on one, do it often, and make it a surprise, release the tension with humour. The goal is to keep everyone connected, engaged and more importantly provide informal support. 

Being empathetic does not mean you don’t push for excellence, on the contrary excellence can be achieved when a leader leads with his head and heart, cares about the people as much as the business. 

Openness and Transparency are Crucial. Information is a critical resource, truth is the primary value, and time – our greatest enemy. Throughout this crisis, we’ve seen leaders who demonstrated integrity, stepped up, were transparent and honest. But we’ve also seen leaders who struggled, were in denial, defensive, reactive, refusing to accept the realities of the ground, quick to blame. Their biggest failure was communication. 

Some leaders consolidated decision-making authority and controlled the flow of information, providing it on a strictly need-to-know basis. What they should have done was share information, foster collaboration and transparency.

The first step to communication is to listen. Hearing is not the same as listening. It’s hard to actively listen, but it’s necessary. When a leader is a good listener, people feel respected and trust follows. Listening leads to engagement, more team cohesion and better outcomes. At the same time morale increases, as everyone feels more committed and driven. 

The way the message is delivered is equally as important as to who delivers it. Leaders who address this crisis with openness, listen with empathy, are in a better position to advise people why change is necessary and how to make that change happen even though that change may affect their life in the short term. Change requires action, and action is only possible when people respect and trust the person leading them. 

Leaders must be clear on what they know, what they don’t know, and what they are doing to learn more. Communicate early, often and directly to stakeholders. Communication should be frequent, more importantly thoughtful, addressing concerns, reassuring stakeholders how and what they are doing to confront the crisis.

Be accurate, honest and transparent. From the onset of the crisis, Singapore adapted its health measures based on evidence, collected scientific information as the crisis unfolded, learnt from the experiences of other countries and observed how well their circuit breaker measures work, tweaked the measures accordingly. The Minister for Communication and task force leaders explained the rationale of the many measures and changes that had to be made in a transparent manner. By doing so, the government was able to build trust and social cohesion.  

Those under stress react more favourably to those they know, trust and respect. Empathy helps soften and engage people in the right way, at the right time, with the right information. In times of uncertainty, its imperative people are given as much clarity and reassurance as possible. Hence, credible updates on testing, food security, job security, support measures for employees and businesses, etc provides assurances. 

Leaders are not required to solve every practical or emotional problem to be helpful. They just need to listen in an empathic manner to make a difference. What they simply need to do is give their time, listen, offer emotional support, and express appreciation. Providing a safe psychological comfort zone in these emotionally charged and tense times allows people to openly discuss ideas, questions, and concerns without fear of repercussions. When employees in the organisation make sense of what’s going on, understand how management is handling it, their minds are put at ease. 

Besides working towards a new normal to provide stability, leaders should also work on a recovery plan. There’s no perfect plan as no one knows how the future will be shaped. Apart from building resilience, formulating a new business strategy, ensuring financial stability, etc the plan should include the safety and wellbeing of the employees in the workplace, e.g employee wellbeing programmes, flexi working hours, etc. Be transparent, be honest. Share this with employees as it will give them focus. Showing progress against the plan as it evolves can have a stabilising effect as it boosts employee morale, and builds confidence in their ability to handle the unexpected. 

When employees are engaged, informed and safe, leaders can then set clear priorities, empower senior executives to implement solutions to manage the multiple changes faced by the organisation.  An organisation’s assets are its people. When employees have a sense of security, they are confident and optimistic. Confident and optimistic employees are calm, act rationally, adapt to disruptive changes better. Empathetic leaders are assets to organisations.

Avoid Burnout. The multitudes of uncertainties, pressure and challenges that leaders face in this crisis can cause stress and decision fatigue, leaving them physically, mentally and emotionally depleted. They are under constant pressure to provide answers and solutions to shareholders, employees, and customers. Their judgment, strategic thinking and even rationality can diminish and cloud their decisions. They may have difficulty concentrating and to feel unfocused or adrift when faced with a perpetually shifting cycle of uncertainty.  

As they face the demands of this critical leadership test, leaders should acknowledge their limitations, take breaks, decompress, to reset and refocus. They must invest in their well-being to sustain their effectiveness over the weeks and months that a crisis can entail. There is no easy route out of this crisis. But business is all about people. The path to a better future is with people. Without a feeling of honesty, trust, and empowerment, there will not be performance, people will feel adrift. With it, people will bring us out of this crisis.  

We’re all in this together, we’re all stronger together.

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Shaun Jayaratnam
Written By

Shaun Jayaratnam is an international sales and business development professional specialising in the strengthening of industry and the establishment of operations throughout Africa, Russia, East Europe, Middle East and APAC. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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