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In Times of Upheaval, Leaders Must Model Empathy, Transparency, Agility

The word empathy spelled out on a table.

​The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of building open and sincere relationships between managers and their reports.

"How do you know how your company is doing right now?" asks Dennis Baltzley, global head of leadership solutions at Korn Ferry in Washington, D.C. "You know from your employees."

It's well worth the effort to cultivate genuine relationships with your workers because candid conversations with employees may be the best tool leaders have right now for assessing the health of a company. Even employee engagement surveys can be deceiving if workers have reasons to hide how they really feel. Workers may feel pressured to say "the right things" if there's not a deep manager-employee relationship. 

But keep in mind that employees often have a good sense of whether their managers are honestly interested in them. Leaders who check in with their reports on a regular basis may be doing so as a way to stay connected, but these efforts can backfire if check-ins seem more like "check-offs" on a to-do list.

Workers can tell the difference.

Empathy Is Key

Research shows that leaders who develop sincere relationships with workers take the time to learn about the employees as people. They ask questions about their employees' lives and approach each conversation with empathy.

Showing empathy means listening and trying to understand not only how a person feels but also why the person feels that way. This can be harder than it seems because "that person's culture and beliefs may be very different from yours," said Jyoti Jani Patel, a Seattle-based leadership consultant and co-creator of the website The Empathy Tour, which features an online collection of stories celebrating organizations that are practicing empathy in creative ways. "Empathy says, 'I get it, from your perspective,' " Patel said.

Leaders should always be engaging in "communication with employees about what we hear their needs to be and explaining what the needs of the company are," said Michael Brisciana, SHRM-SCP, vice president of human resources at Janel Group, an import/export company based in New York City with 15 offices nationwide. "It's about trying to balance the two sides."

Empathy Starts with the Self

Back in the spring of 2020, many leaders expected the COVID-19 pandemic would be a short-term problem, lasting perhaps a few weeks. But as the public health crisis has dragged on, "what we're seeing playing out on a global scale is organizations that are stressed," Patel said. "And there's a lot of really stressed-out leaders out there who are struggling to have empathy."

Research from the Society for Human Resource Management found that almost all of the CEOs surveyed (97 percent) agreed that their actions have a direct impact on workplace culture.

Yet in the Workplace Empathy Study, conducted in February 2021 by HR software company Businessolver, 7 in 10 CEOs reported that it's difficult for them to consistently show empathy in the workplace (a 29-point increase from the previous year's survey). In addition, 68 percent of CEOs said they fear they will lose respect if they show empathy in the workplace (a 31-point increase from the previous year). 

"I think we're still trying to find the balance between understanding employees and being strong leaders," Brisciana said.

Nearly everyone's life has changed. "We have a lot more demands now in all the roles that we play, whether parent or caregiver, employee or company leader," Patel said. Leaders need to make sure they're being empathetic to themselves first. "We've got to take care of ourselves and become strong before we can take care of and be strong for others."

Transparency Is a Must

It's also imperative for leaders to be transparent about the company's challenges and financial situation. Employees don't expect leaders to immediately have all the answers to a company's challenges, but they do expect them to be forthright about any difficulties and to be truthful about when answers can be expected. 

"Be very transparent about all decision-making processes, who was consulted and how any decision was made—for example, by consensus or by majority opinion," Patel said.

In addition:

*Acknowledge difficult situations. Leaders should show employees that they understand what's hard about a situation. Be careful not to minimize problems or give them a positive spin. Don't feel pressured to find a solution, either.

"Be … realistic about the current situation, and not how you wish it was," Baltzley said. "A lot of leaders think that communication is [relaying] information. But … communication is connection." Employees "know I'm paying attention if I'm checking in and saying, 'I don't have all the answers, but how are you doing?' "

*Model agility. Make sure your employees feel supported when you ask them to adapt to change. "You want people to be willing to try things," Baltzley said. Support that willingness by being an example for your employees. Do you take lessons from the past and apply them to new situations? Do you get back up when you've been knocked down?

*Seek out all employees' viewpoints and be open to whatever is said. If there are people who have been quiet at work in the past, it's especially important that you hear from them now, Patel said. "You want alternative perspectives, to get the voices that are not usually heard."

Empathy and transparency can create a psychologically safe workplace where employees won't be afraid to talk about difficult topics and managers won't be afraid to delve into discussions that bring up conflicting ideas. Conflict is often a good thing, Patel said, because it means people are being honest and a wider range of viewpoints are being heard.

Natalie Kroc is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. 


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