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Leading Teams Through Tough Times with Empathy

A group of people sitting around a conference table.

​Unprecedented circumstances have caused managers to encounter a more difficult balancing act when it comes to demonstrating empathy while also insisting on accountability in today's workplace.

As companies, managers and workers navigate out of the pandemic and the hardships it has caused, stress and burnout are affecting workers more than ever.

Jennifer Lee, executive director of learning and development at JB Training Solutions, discussed scenarios and solutions during "Empathy Plus Accountability Equals a Balanced Diet for a Healthy Organization," a concurrent session on June 12 at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2022 in New Orleans.

When workers are dealing with stressors away from the office, they often struggle more with performance in the office, Lee said. One key is to discover what outside influences might be affecting their work.

Check in with them. Don't ask, "How are you doing?" Ask, "How are you doing today?" because that should draw a more pointed response than the standard "I'm OK" reply.

"When speaking with employees, validate what they are telling you by starting with, 'I can see how …,' using the proper tone," Lee said. "Tell them that their reactions are reasonable."

Lee spoke of author Marie R. Miyashiro, whose book The Empathy Factor (PuddleDancer Press, 2011) provides a fundamental understanding of the topic of empathy in the workplace and organizationwide teaching moments.

"Effective leaders seem better at blending the soft leadership skills—trust, empathy and genuine communication—with the tough skills needed to keep an organization afloat during difficult times," Miyashiro wrote.

Micro-Expectations Can Ease Anxiety

"Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand and share the thoughts and feelings of others," Lee said. "It's not absorbing the workload and expectations of team members due to hard times."

"Accountability is an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions," she added. "It's not holding team members to original expectations regardless of circumstances."

Job expectations are shifting. Set micro-expectations so the employee has something to act on in the short term, Lee said. Suggest daily goals rather then weekly, monthly or quarterly goals. This can help struggling workers to progress through their turmoil.

When workers aren't delivering, know that what's going on with one employee can affect many more in the department or the company, Lee said, which makes team members' mental states a more vital component regarding performance.

Most importantly, supervisors must realize that doing the work for their employees is not a valid solution. "You can offer them resources, but don't simply do their work; that is not a long-term answer," Lee said.

It's also important to respect their boundaries, especially those working remotely. Reaching out during off hours—or especially during paid time off—can increase anxiety and establish an unhealthy work/life balance.

Offer Support; Don't Start a Tug of War

Consider employees' workloads, Lee said. Are they being asked to do too much? When dealing with individuals' situations, offer to provide support to help them overcome obstacles when necessary.

"When we identify needs, we get to the core of what other people are saying, which can be a huge timesaver," Miyashiro wrote. "We can also save time by eliminating our actions that don't address significant needs."

When looking to find a solution, the HR manager or supervisor should lead with a question: What do you need that would help you to do your job better? Keep in mind: They could ask for something unreasonable, and, if they do, that can start a tug of war about what's reasonable.

For example, a request might be, "It would help me greatly if I didn't have to attend all my department meetings. I just don't have time; they are filling my day."

Lee shared what an empathetic reply might be: "You have a lot that you are tackling! You partner with so many team members, and they don't have full insight into your overall workload. I know that can be frustrating and difficult to manage. That is a lot of status updates! It's important to attend many of them so you can contribute your feedback, but we can see about decreasing your meeting time …"

A follow-up solution might be: "Can you please look at your schedule and identify what meetings would be best to attend and the cadence? I'll circle back with the team to see what is possible."

Lee said that while adjusting employees' work responsibilities in that way can be beneficial, it's important to treat people the same.

"If one other employee is given the option to work from home or some other unique circumstance, what will others' perceptions be?" Lee asked. "Be proactive in reaching out to the staff on the situation so you can avoid starting the rumor mill and avoid drama."

With the pandemic now more in check, the "era of survival" from the past two years may be over, Lee said, but its effects will linger.


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